Sequestration Threatens Science

If Congress can't reach an agreement on reducing the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion, automatic decreases to key federal science agency budgets go into effect.

Sep 19, 2012
Bob Grant

The clock is ticking, counting down to January 2, 2013—the date by which the US Congress must approve a plan to reduce the federal budget deficit by $1.2 trillion. If they fail, automatic budget cuts will be made at a variety of federal agencies, including those tasked with funding US life science researchers.

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), such “sequestration” would slash the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget $2.529 billion, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would lose $586 million, and the Department of Energy Office of Science would be cut by $400 million.

Science advocates are speaking out to urge legislators to prevent these automatic cuts, which were provisioned by the government-shutdown-averting Budget Control Act of 2011. "Federal funding for research programs are not the source of our nation’s debt, and cuts to these and other programs are not the solution to our fiscal problems," said Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) President Judith Bond in a statement. "We urge our elected leaders to act expeditiously to avoid the catastrophic consequences of sequestration and enable federal agencies to plan for the coming year."

Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and programs at science advocacy group Research!America, said that researchers should take the initiative to call their elected represented and voice their concerns about sequestration. "We definitely need more scientists to speak up," she told The Scientist. "These [sequestration] numbers will, in fact, have a dramatic impact on the number of grants that are approved by NIH and NSF." Dehoney added that scientists should try to appeal to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in phrasing their advice, such as emphasizing the need to trim entitlements and reform the tax code to achieve deficit reduction. "We need big solutions," she said.

Slashing federal science budgets is also likely to have far-reaching effects on the economy, according to Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research (UMR), an advocacy group that seeks steady increases in NIH funding. "NIH is not just about the research that it funds directly through universities," she said. "There is a whole wide range of industry that either spins off from that research or supports the research." Laboratory equipment makers, reagent suppliers, and software providers make up this "innovation ecosystem," Wolinetz added, and all depend, to some degree, on federal science funding.

This summer UMR quantified the economic impact of the automatic cuts to the NIH budget. If sequestration resulted in an estimated 7.8 percent reduction in non-defense, discretionary spending, the total number of NIH awards would drop by more than 1,800, some 33,000 jobs would vanish, and economic activity would decrease by $4.5 billion, according to the UMR report released this July. With the publication of the even higher OMB sequestration estimates (8.2 percent in discretionary spending), the UMR estimates appear to be conservative.

As the clock continues to tick, Congress has several options for how to handle the looming sequestration. It's unlikely that much will get done on the legislative front after elections in November, during the lame duck period that ends with the President and Congress officially taking office in January. Either policymakers hammer out a deficit reduction deal before the elections, or they could pass a bill that extends the deadline. Dehoney said that extending the deadline is the most likely scenario at this point. "I certainly see that as a possibility," Wolinetz agreed, adding that it's also possible that Congress fails to find agreement and the automatic cuts are initiated. "The worst case scenario for everyone, regardless of what their political stripes are, is getting to the 11th hour and letting sequestration be the default option."

But we may not even have to wait for sequestration to happen to see the negative effects, Wolinetz noted. As university administrators and industry officials attempt to chart out their progress and activities through the next fiscal year, the threat of across-the-board cuts to federal science agencies casts doubt and uncertainty. "That uncertainty itself is already causing a chilling effect," she said.