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Director’s Corner: DC Update – The New Normal

by Dara Little

It’s hard to avoid the national conversations about the “fiscal cliff” – or ledge, slope, or hill depending on who is leading the discussion. The technical term for the “fiscal cliff” is sequestration and essentially amounts to automatic trigger cuts to defense and nondefense discretionary spending (entitlement programs, like Social Security, would be excluded from the cuts) that are scheduled to go into effect January 2, 2013 if Congress and the President do not reach a budget solution to avoid sequestration.

While it is unlikely that the trigger for sequestration will actually go into effect, the impact of the proposed cuts would be severe. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates the potential impact of sequestration on overall R&D investment at approximately $65 billion over five years; these cuts could set entire research fields back by decades.

In many ways, the discussion about sequestration and the federal budget is framing the broader conversation about the federal government’s role in supporting R&D and nonR&D programs – cutting edge programs that are carried out here on campus every day.

Indeed, limited budgets and increased accountability are rapidly becoming our “new normal.” The conversation at the national level provides insight into what we can expect from our federal agencies in this new environment of increased competition for federal dollars.

Limited Budgets and Increased Accountability: Irrespective of what happens with sequestration, the competition for federal funds will remain high as more investigators compete for fewer dollars. According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, federal R&D funding at colleges and universities decreased from 63% in FY 2006 to 59% by 2009. At the same time, Congress has increased calls for accountability of federal programs and linked accountability to appropriations. This means that agencies are looking for projects that both help them meet their mission and goals and that conform to the federal rules and regulations. Not only must your idea be sound and fit within the agency’s program goals, but your proposal must also be “polished” and free from errors. Agencies are now rejecting more proposals over basic compliance issues when, a few years ago, they may have been more flexible with postsubmission additions/changes. In fact, this January the National Science Foundation will add additional compliance checks to Fastlane. These changes will autocheck proposals for noncompliance while also adding a new review type, “Proposal Not Accepted,” to identify the proposals that do not make it beyond basic proposal validation. Agencies are scrutinizing every aspect of the proposal.

As always, OSP is available to help you navigate these important changes and to ensure your proposal is polished and free from errors, particularly errors that can stop a proposal from being accepted for review. We urge you to contact us as soon as you plan to submit a proposal but at least three (3) weeks before the agency deadline; see the optimum timeframe for working with OSP to develop and submit a proposal to the right.