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US Science Community Braces for Budget Cuts

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By Melinda Rose, Senior Editor

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2013 — As the $85 billion in automatic US government spending cuts known as the sequestration loom closer, the science community braces for the impact of severe cuts on basic scientific research.

The across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending required by the Budget Control act of 2011 are scheduled to take effect at midnight on March 1. The $85 billion represents about 2.4 percent of the US government's $3.5 trillion budget.

President Obama was expected to sign the order to start the spending cuts on Friday, March 1. Once that happens, one of the most common means of meeting sequestration targets will be massive furloughs, according to a Feb. 13 report on sequestration by the House Appropriations Committee Democrats. Furloughs for federal workers would not begin for 30 days.

The US Capitol.
The US Capitol. Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

Federal agencies most affected by the sequester include the Department of Defense (DoD), which is estimated to have to cut 11 percent of its budget. About 108,000 defense civilian employees could lose their jobs this year, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and the DoD is considering the furlough of up to 768,132 civilian employees for up to 22 days, according to the House Democrats report. 

Hundreds of layoffs at national labs, universities, research facilities, and private sector companies that rely on Office of Science grant funding for energy research are also expected to happen.

Among the areas not affected by the spending cuts are Social Security benefits, Medicaid, pay for military personnel and Pell Grants for college students.

The consequences to the US economy of reduced research and development include a minimum $203 billion reduction in GDP (gross domestic product) over the next nine years and 200,000 fewer jobs between 2013 and 2016, according to ScienceWorksforU.S., a project of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and The Science Coalition that represents more than 200 research universities.

Under the cuts, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest source of medical research funding in the world, will lose $1.6 billion, or roughly 5 percent, of its appropriation. The institute estimates that this will mean 2300 grants that it planned to fund would not be awarded, resulting in a loss of 20,500 jobs across the US and a $3 billion decline in economic activity.

"Medical research in America will be slowed by this, advances that could have happened sooner will happen later or perhaps not at all...and this is what wakes me up in the middle of the night," NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told CBS News this week. Collins is also a researcher himself, conducting experiments related to diabetes and aging, which he said will also be cut.

The impact of the NIH sequestration cuts on just three states — California, Massachusetts and New York — could be $100 each, according to new analysis produced by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). FASEB is composed of 26 societies with more than 100,000 members, making it the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the US. Researchers from FASEB member societies have sent about 20,000 e-mails to members of Congress urging them to prevent sequestration, the federation said.

FASEB scientists from across the country will visit Capitol Hill on March 19 to share personal stories about the impact of the sequestration cuts and how several years of flat funding for NIH has affected the research community.

“FASEB has been a leading voice working around-the-clock to educate members of Congress about the damage sequestration will do to NIH and we will not back down now. The future of medical research depends on it,” said FASEB President Judith S. Bond.

Appropriations to the National Science Foundation (NSF) will also be reduced by 5 percent under the cuts, or about $375 million, and the foundation said it will reduce the number of grants it awards by 1000 in a letter NSF Director Subra Suresh sent Wednesday to presidents of universities and colleges and other organizations that receive NSF funding.

"We intend to make the necessary FY 2013 reductions with as little disruption as possible to established commitments," Suresh wrote. Those commitments include protecting the foundation's workforce and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) development programs, and maintaining existing awards, he said.

A $950 million cut to NASA would cut the Exploration program (which includes the Orion capsule, the Space Launch System and commercial crew development); the science budget (which includes climate research satellites and solar system exploration projects); Space Operations (including the International Space Station) and Space Technology and Aeronautics.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, without the sequestration, America's GDP growth would be about 0.6 percentage points faster during this calendar year, and the equivalent of about 750,000 more full-time jobs would be created or retained by the fourth quarter.

More than two-thirds (67 percent) of small business leaders say basic research funded by the federal government is important to private sector innovation, according to a new nationwide survey of small business owners/operators commissioned by nonprofit public education and advocacy alliance Research!America. In addition, nearly half (45 percent) say medical research funding to universities and other non-governmental research institutions should not be cut as part of sequestration, and 40 percent say that such across-the-board cuts are not a smart strategy for reducing the deficit.

"Small business owners understand the critical role of federal government in giving small businesses a launching pad that includes the stimulus of innovation based on federally supported research and development," said Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley. "Deep cuts to medical research funding would be detrimental to small businesses, our nation's economy and global competitiveness if policy makers allow the sequester to take effect."

Others say the sequester is just the latest blow the research community has had to endure.

"Even without sequestration, scientific research in the US is already under siege," wrote New York University's Dean for Science Michael D. Purugganan in his article, "Sequestering Science," on the Huffington Post website in January. "Budgets for research have remained essentially flat over the last few years, and in 2011 the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded roughly one in five scientific proposals it received. Exciting research ideas, which could have been the foundation for breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and engineering, have already fallen by the wayside as scientists struggle to keep underfunded laboratories in operation."
Mar 2013
Americasbasic scientific researchBudget Control Act of 2011Businessdefenseenergyfunding cutsGDPgovernmentjobsNASANIHNSFResearch & Technologyscience communitysequester

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