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NIH Avoids Fiscal Cliff, For Now

01/04/2013
Megan Scudellari

Over the next two months, Congress will haggle over deep budget cuts to federal research funding agencies. But is this really the worst-case scenario for science? Find out...


On Tuesday, January 1st, Congress passed a fiscal bill to avoid automatic tax hikes scheduled to go into effect in 2013 in a last-minute compromise between Republicans and Democrats hoping to avoid another financial crisis.

On Tuesday, January 1st, Congress passed a fiscal bill to avoid automatic tax hikes scheduled to go into effect in 2013 in a last-minute compromise between Republicans and Democrats hoping to avoid another financial crisis. Source: Kmccoy, Wikipedia





“My first reaction was, ‘My God, it’s great news when they can agree on something,’” said Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), the nation’s largest coalition of biomedical researchers. “But once I got over my initial euphoria, I realized that the spending cuts are still before us.”

While the fiscal deal prevented large tax increases for most Americans, it only temporarily deferred sharp spending cuts known as sequestration, including across-the-board 8.2% cuts to government science funding agencies.

For the next two months, Congress will haggle over those cuts, leaving researchers and institutions in limbo about whether or not they will see reductions in funding from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). That uncertainty is impeding scientists and university departments from making plans for 2013, said Garrison.

Research!America, a not-for-profit research advocacy group, estimates that an 8.2% sequester would reduce government research funding by $3.9 billion in 2013 alone, including $2.5 billion from the NIH, $490 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and $586 million from the NSF. Faced with these numbers, science organizations like FASEB, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Microbiology, and the Society for Neuroscience have signed petitions urging Congress and the President to avoid such “devastating” cuts.

The two-month delay leaves little time for science advocacy groups to argue their case for funding, says Garrison. In a normal year, the President proposes a budget in February, and then Congress spend months questioning and discussing each agency’s needs before voting on the final budget. This year, however, research agencies are at a disadvantage: “The less time we have in front of people to present, the more likely we are to be disappointed,” said Garrison. “These across-the-board and bottom-line numbers make the decisions purely arithmetic and not thoughtful. I think science will suffer under that.”

Yet others, including science writer Colin Macilwain at Nature, argue that jumping off the fiscal cliff is not the end of the world for science: The overall arrangement leans to the left, with more revenue raised through higher taxation than spending cuts, Macilwain writes, and a new baseline of higher taxes and reduced spending is the “least-bad” measure proposed to deal with an unsustainable US deficit.

The NIH, NSF, and other agencies have not announced what cuts they would make in the event of sequestration, though some universities are already drawing up contingency plans, according to Nature. In the meantime, Garrison urges scientists to contact their representatives in Congress and describe the importance of federally funded research in their district. FASEB currently provides factsheets describing the amount of NIH funding in districts across the country and examples of how research in each area has benefitted the nation.

Keywords:  nih funding