Congress’ work in the last few days has been a classic case of Good News/Bad News for innovation and research. The good news is that the legislative body didn’t act to implement the automatic budget sequestration that would have led to some tough and, perhaps, strategically unwise across-the-board cuts to government-supported R&D work. The bad news is that science-related agencies are likely to be left dangling for the next few months, and eventual sequestration is still an option.
Eileen warned about the potential sequestration problem in August and in November, AAAS issued another warning that the automatic cuts “could slash the U.S. R&D investment by 8.4 percent—some $58 billion—over five years. That would mean laboratory closures and layoffs, the experts said, and it would jeopardize current research in areas ranging from genetic medicine and advanced manufacturing to batteries that could allow a 10-fold increase in the range of electric cars. It might also discourage a new generation from careers in science and engineering.” (The experts referred to in the above quote were part of a panel AAAS took to Capitol Hill to brief Congress on the impact of the proposed cuts on discovery and innovation.)
Drilling a little bit deeper, AAAS predicted that sequestration could cause defense-related R&D funding to fall by 9.1 percent ($36 billion) over the next five years and nondefense spending would fall by 7.4 percent, or ($22 billion).
Congress’ New Year’s Day actions did little to change “the rising storm” that Eileen described. To be fair, Congress reduced the amount that had to be sequestered in fiscal year 2013 by $24 billion. But, it left $95 billion to still be cut in FY13 and $109 billion in each of the next four fiscal years, if it fails to reconsider the sequestration.
So, until around March 27, Congress’ NYE decision-indecision leaves federal agencies operating at approximately FY12 levels. Congress also whacked discretionary spending by $12 billion during the 2013-2014 period. AAAS’s Matt Hourihan, director of the group’s R&D Budget and Policy Program, finds a little silver lining, noting, “The advantage is that the [Obama] administration and Congress will have discretion in allocating this new round of cuts, rather than the across-the-board approach taken by the sequester, which leaves open the possibility that they may prioritize science and innovation funding.”
What happens in late March? An online Nature story says that at least one science-technology society is uneasy. The story reports that Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society fears that the timing may increase the momentum behind big spending cuts. Nevertheless, he opines that the intervening period may also allow a more thoughtful discussion with lawmakers of the implications.
Nature reports that the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have not publicly released information about what sequestration cuts could be in store, but likely have contingency plans.
Running in parallel with this is that federal agencies and the administration are finalizing the proposed FY 2014 budget. The President submits the budget for the next fiscal year the first Monday in February. A glum-sounding Hourihan says, “In the big picture, it remains to be seen where science funding fits in.”
In the meantime, AAAS has launched a campaign and is seeking support for the science and technical community to urge Washington to protect R&D funding and has created a special “Speak Up For Science” webpage where the public is urged to submit written or video comments that emphasize how important federal funding is for research and innovation.