A US House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, circa 2004. The current Congress is not going to finalize the FY’13 budget by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year because of a confluence of campaigning, lame duck session inertia and, most of all, fallout from last year’s Budget Control Act. Credit: Wikimedia.

There’s a perfect storm brewing and its name is FY’13.

The federal government’s new year begins on Oct. 1, and President Obama delivered his proposed budget to Congress back in February. Congress has 12 oversight panels that digest the annual $3.5 trillion of federal spending, and they should be spending these last few weeks of Fiscal Year 2012 deciding how to allocate the last several hundred million dollars and packaging the bills into tidy, Congress-ready legislation.

Instead, they are campaigning (mostly in Ohio methinks) and putting off dealing with the self-imposed spending cuts required by last year’s spending compromise in the Budget Control Act.

The goal of the Budget Control Act is to get control of the $1.5 trillion annual deficit—keep it from growing and whittle it down some (and raise the 2011 debt ceiling). Congress was supposed to enact changes based on recommendations from a bipartisan congressional commission, the so-called supercommittee, but the supercommittee failed to reach consensus on recommendations. Thus, Congresses’ inaction means mandated, automatic spending reductions of $110 billion become effective on Jan. 2, 2013. (The term used by lawmakers is “sequestration.”) This would be ” year one” of a ten-year spending reduction that will ultimately total $1.2 trillion. The pain will be felt equally by military and civilian programs and estimates are that the mandatory cuts will mean an eight to ten percent cut for all federal research agencies.

Happy New Year, indeed.

In an Aug. 10 article in Science, Jeffrey Mervis (whom I’ve often cited) explains that Congress will execute a continuing resolution to keep the government going at current levels until April 1. However, as he explains in his Aug. 17 article, few in Washington think the sequestration is good legislation. “It may be the most unpopular law in Washington,” he writes, and continues, “In fact, regret runs so deep that many in Congress will find a way to postpone or avoid the cuts it mandated.”

So, funding agencies are in a quandary. Will or won’t there or won’t there be cuts? The continuing resolution authorizes spending at FY’12 levels, but should they start the austerity early? Already, we’ve been hearing that government employees are being told that travel will not be authorized and that some research programs are being cut. According to Mervis, federal agencies that fund science R&D are “warning their constituents to prepare for the worst.”

Which begs the question, how does one prepare for the worst?

In any storm there are casualties, survivors and even some who thrive. It takes no effort to be in the first group. Survivors are smart about riding out the storm, prepared and prudent. Those who thrive figure out a way to find an opportunity despite the storm, or, perhaps, even brought on by the storm.

The federal funding agencies are not going out of business (although some of the newer ones are vulnerable, like ARPA-E), but they are cutting back. They are still going to spend millions of dollars on science and engineering research, so it behooves researchers to position themselves such that they “stake their claim” to what remains of the federal pie. And, they need to have their fingers on the pulse of what the federal funding priorities are and do everything they can to distinguish themselves as the most innovative, most informed, most scientifically solid, most well-connected.

For example, the consistent message coming out of agencies like NSF, DOE and OSTP in the last year has been that innovation and manufacturing are critical to our nation. The government has backed those priorities with funding for new programs like National Nanotechnology Initiative, NSF I-Corps and the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and it’s just-announced additive manufacturing center. The Materials Genome Initiative, too, has a lot of momentum backing it, albeit mostly through the major funding agencies. While it is unlikely that anything is “safe,” these new initiatives give some clues as to what it will take for proposals to be winners.

Researchers who are in it to survive and thrive need to stay ahead need to be on top of the latest science and engineering advances and who is leading. They need to know what companies are looking for commercialization opportunities and who their potential research partners might be. Thus, it is because of funding uncertainties that this year’s Materials Science and Technology conference in Pittsburgh is especially critical.

Somewhat ironically scheduled for the first week of FY’13, Oct. 7-11, the meeting brings together 3,000 materials scientists from around the world and is organized by four partnering materials science societies, which means that there are four perspectives contributing to the program and four societies working together to ensure that the meeting is timely, relevant, forward-looking and comprehensive. The four organizing societies are The American Ceramic Society, ASM International, The American Institute of Steel Technology, and The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. A fifth participant, NACE, is a cosponsoring society.

In my next post, I’ll pull out some highlights from the technical part of the meeting and show you how the symposia planned for MS&T’12 will help materials scientists and engineers sharpen their competitive edge and be among those who don’t just survive but thrive in the coming federal fiscal storm.