WASHINGTON - Massachusetts university and hospital officials, determined to prevent erosion of the research and development pillar of the state’s economy, have joined a lobbying slugfest over congressional efforts to slash hundreds of billions from the projected national debt.
The state stands to lose more than $680 million in federal research funding in 2013, or nearly 9 percent of the approximately $7.7 billion it is now estimated to receive, if a bipartisan deficit reduction panel does not hammer out a deal by Nov. 23 and automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending are triggered.
The cuts, the latest in a series, could imperil parts of the state’s medical and scientific sectors, which have become a critical economic driver. The sectors have sustained the Bay State through the recession, supported tens of thousands of jobs, trained young scientists with hopes of discovering cures, and anchored the life sciences industry in Massachusetts, the officials contend.
Even if the so-called congressional supercommittee reaches an agreement, leaders of Massachusetts universities and other institutions expect their research funds to be a part of its budget reduction calculus.
At stake is no less than Massachusetts’ future and the underpinnings of the nation’s economic competitiveness, say university presidents, hospital executives, and industry representatives who have been making regular trips to the capital to lobby Congress to preserve research money.
Boston and Cambridge, with one of the densest concentrations of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the country, is the epicenter for medical research. And Boston is home to the five independent hospitals receiving the most funds from the National Institutes of Health in the nation, said John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals. Only California receives more NIH funds overall.
“Reducing funding for research would be an enormous mistake,’’ said Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of about 130 research university presidents who signed a letter to supercommittee members urging them to make bold reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code rather than nibble around the edges of the debt problem with further cuts to scientific research. “This is the kind of investment you have to make in good times and in bad.’’
Even some deficit hawks agree.
“Government does have a role to play in helping with basic research because it’s not always commercially feasible,’’ said Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Va.-based group advocating responsible fiscal policy. “We need to be careful not to cut things that are intended to help the economy grow in the future.’’
At MIT, whose rise as an elite engineering university is directly tied to the research investments made by the Department of Defense during World War II, a diverse pool of federal agencies sponsors 71 percent of its research. In the most recent fiscal year, MIT received about $1.3 billion in federal dollars, with $469 million for on-campus research and $804 million for work at its Lexington-based Lincoln Laboratory. The money comes predominantly from the Pentagon and the NIH, but also from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.
The university’s research portfolio, and in turn, the vitality of Kendall Square and its myriad of biomedical companies derived from MIT labs, would be significantly damaged if federal funding plummets, Hockfield said.
Like many from Massachusetts, including the presidents of Northeastern, Tufts, Harvard, and Boston universities, Hockfield lobbied Senator John Kerry, a Democratic member of the supercommittee. They met in Washington last month to discuss the importance of research funding.
The Massachusetts senator has tried to play the role of compromiser in the debt talks, saying each group with a vested interest in the outcome must be willing to take a small hit in order to serve the greater good of financial stability. Yet, Kerry did not directly make the same demand of the research sector.
“Americans are asking us - begging us - to act like adults and get Congress working again to put our fiscal house in order,’’ Kerry said in a written statement. “Tough choices are required, but any agreement that’s fair for Massachusetts and America must grow our economy instead of slowing it down.’’
Hockfield said dozens of MIT faculty and students have also traveled from Cambridge to make their pitch on Capitol Hill. New University of Massachusetts president Robert Caret said he, too, is personally lobbying the Massachusetts delegation.
Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey earlier this month fired off a letter, signed by 90 House Democrats and Republicans, urging the House appropriations committee to protect the NIH budget.
“We’re in a battle,’’ the Malden Democrat said. “China, India, and other nations are ready to step up to bat if we fail to make the investments to keep America ahead of the curve.’’
Research has already taken a hit under August’s debt limit agreement that called for about $900 billion in cuts in discretionary programs over the next decade. The deal set spending caps that will result in a 2 to 5 percent decrease in funding for nondefense, nonentitlement programs such as medical research by 2013, said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Federal funding for research and development for Massachusetts, currently estimated to be about $7.7 billion, is projected to drop by $154 million to $385 million by 2013 if Congress applies the parameters of the August deal proportionately to all programs.
Additionally, if the supercommittee fails to come up with an additional $1.2 trillion in savings, across-the-board cuts of approximately 9 percent to most defense and discretionary spending would take effect in 2013. Such a reduction could result in the state losing an additional $680 million to $701 million, based on a Globe analysis using available data.
Some conservatives assert that research, like entitlements and other programs, should be on the chopping block.
“There are lots of places universities can go to fund research, like private sector entities,’’ rather than running to Washington, said Patrick Louis Knudsen, a senior budgetary fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The federal government is broke precisely because it has spent money on everything under the sun that it never had to.’’
The NIH has begun preparing for expected cuts and is asking the research community to weigh in on options that include reducing the number or size of grants and limiting the number of awards or total dollars each researcher could receive.
In addition to damaging the state economy, cuts would stymie promising research and discourage young scientists from entering the field, said Dr. Gary Fleisher, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital Boston, a Harvard teaching hospital.
“There are important discoveries to be made,’’ Fleisher said. “If we don’t get the funding, we don’t make the discoveries.’’
For hospitals, the federal research cuts would be yet another hit on top of the $2.5 billion to $4.9 billion they are projected to lose under Medicare cuts being considered by the supercommittee, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
Said Claude Canizares, vice president for research at MIT: “At this point when we’re going into a time of some potential famine and food shortage, eating your seed corn is not a recipe for success.’’