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Anxiety Over Budget Cuts Concerning Colorado's Federal Labs

Pending federal budget cuts are causing some anxiety at federal laboratories in Colorado.  KUNC’s Erin O’Toole talks with Boulder County Business Report publisher Chris Wood about possible impacts on federal labs in Boulder.

O’Toole: Chris, a Congressional super committee is charged with finding another $1.2 trillion dollars in budget cuts. They’re being asked to present these savings to Congress by Thanksgiving. How are efforts to curtail the massive federal deficit likely to affect federal laboratories?

Wood:That’s a big unknown, of course, Erin. But when you’re talking about cuts of that magnitude — and many trillions more that would have to be cut to balance the federal budget over the next decade— it causes some concern at agencies that rely on federal funding, including the many labs in Boulder, and nearby in Golden.

A spokesman for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, which employs 1,500 people in Boulder, said that it’s like squeezing a balloon – some programs could face cuts, while others could increase.

Right now, it’s the uncertainty that is creating the anxiety.

O’Toole: Certainly. You mentioned NCAR -- what other laboratories are in Boulder, and how big an impact do they have on the economy?

Wood:The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado released a new study in March that analyzed the economic impact of federal labs. Boulder is home not only to NCAR, but also to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and many others.

The CU study found that these labs employed more than 3,500 workers in 2010, with average salary and benefits of more than $104,000. That’s an economic impact of almost $464 million.

And that doesn’t count the economic impact of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden or the federal labs that exist in Fort Collins.

All told, the study found that 24 federal labs statewide injected $1.5 billion into the Colorado economy last year, and accounted for 16,000 direct and indirect jobs. So it’s a major factor in the state’s economy.

O’Toole: Are any of these federal laboratories doing anything to prepare for possible cuts?

Wood:Well, as one example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is not filling positions vacated by attrition until the new budget gets approved. Spokesman Don Mock told us that government workers are trying to read the tea leaves to determine how to plan for the coming year. But he also noted that there’s a difference between uncertainty and actual cuts.

O’Toole: Chris, a lot of the federal labs in the Boulder and Golden areas are focused on atmospheric sciences and renewable energy. We are nearing an election year. Is there some concern the political climate could make those agencies targets for cuts?

Wood: Absolutely. Labs such as NREL, NOAA and NCAR have done pretty well in terms of funding in recent years, as the Obama administration has sought to combat climate change. If that topic becomes more politicized, there’s clearly a danger that cuts could be made.

O’Toole: You mentioned a moment ago that some programs might actually see an increase in funding. I’m curious - how is that even possible, given the budget-cutting climate?

Wood: Here’s an example, Erin, where cuts in one program could lead to increased funding in another. NASA’s space-shuttle program has drawn to a close, of course. And that could actually free up funding for other space-science programs, including those at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, which gets funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

I think it’s fair to say that leaders of all the state’s federal labs will be watching these budget talks very closely.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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