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UF/IFAS Faces Hard Choices

By:
Michael V. Martin, Vice President for

The popular press reported, somewhat accurately, the fiscal situation facing the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). At a time when the state’s economy is struggling, the Legislature has been forced to disinvest in the research and development wing of its leading economic sector.

Research and development by UF/IFAS directly supports the Florida’s $54 billion per year natural resource industries sector agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and some segments of tourism. The UF/IFAS research and extension (R&E) budget is about 0.2 percent of the annual contributions of the sector which depends on it. While it seems contradictory to reduce the state’s commitment to R&E at times like these, that’s what’s happening.

The 2001 Legislature reduced UF/IFAS’ base budget by $2.5 million. In the 2001 special session, the base budget was cut by another $8.07 million. One time add backs of $4.23 million will soften the short-term impacts. However, this means we must cut an additional $3.84 million from the current year budget (fiscal year 2001-2002) and prepare to cut over $8 million from next year’s budget. The sum of all this means that we could well begin fiscal year 2002-2003 down $10.5 million from our budget in 2000-2001.

So, unless the base budget is restored soon, the long-term consequences will be profound and painful. Very hard choices will have to be made. Important, successful programs will have to be eliminated or curtailed. All parts of UF/IFAS will feel the effects of base budget cuts and thus everyone we serve will be adversely affected.

Let me briefly outline the context in which we will have to cope if the budget cuts now in place stand as they are.

  • About 85 percent of our money is in people faculty, support staff, technicians, etc. The balance pays for utilities, travel, computers, lab equipment and a wide range of essential operational costs. Thus, the budget cannot be cut without the loss of positions and jobs. It’s simply a mathematical reality.
  • We are absolutely committed to excellence. That means we will not do anything that we cannot do well. Across-the-board cuts are inconsistent with this commitment. To retain excellence, a program/unit elimination or streamlining approach must be taken.
  • An independent review of our 19 research and education centers (RECs) concluded the system was not programmatically or economically sustainable prior to the budget cuts of 2001. The diffusion of effort, the cost of operating multiple sites and $22.0 million of deferred maintenance, among other things, led the review team to recommend a long-term effort to consolidate the RECs.
  • Rapidly rising costs of modern science adds further to the fiscal challenges we face.
  • An on-going analysis of demands on our research and extension programs suggests the people of Florida need what we do now more than ever.
  • A number of cost saving measures including downsizing administration, department consolidations, support service streamlining and out-sourcing were implemented well prior to this round of cuts. Thus, we have a very limited number of efficiency measures now available.
  • To meet the initial cut of $2.5 million we froze 37 vacant faculty positions. Thus, the option of reducing staff through attrition on open lines no longer exists. Moreover, the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) created incentives for a number of faculty and staff to commit to retire June 30, 2003. Thus, we are still 18 months away from significant attrition.

All this leads to the following conclusions. First, if we intend to retain and enhance 21st century science and education to serve Florida’s 21st century economy, the state will have to make a prudent but meaningful investment. Second, unless or until this happens, we will have to make difficult and painful choices which will shrink our capacity and ability to serve. In both instances, the involvement of industry leaders, state and local officials and the concerned general public is essential. Many will be unhappy with the choices we will have to make. Many of the choices will draw the ire of friends around the state they already have. But also, be assured that whatever must be done will be done to guarantee future Floridians that UF/IFAS will serve them in the best possible, if more limited fashion.

MVM/jln

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