After months of campaigning for increased research funding on Capitol Hill, lobbyists remain uncertain about next year’s budgets for federal science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Unless Congress takes action before January 3, 2013, every federal department across the board will have its budget cut. This is the result of the Budget Control Act of 2011 that lawmakers passed last year to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. In an effort to slow down the rate of growth of US debt, the law threatened automatic cuts to federal spending unless Congress passed a deficit reduction bill with $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years by December 23, 2011. Despite deliberations by a 12-member bipartisan super-committee, lawmakers failed to reach a consensus.
The NIH estimates that those cuts could result in 2400 fewer grants awarded next year. This comes at a time when the agency is already reporting the lowest funding rate of grant applications in history with only one in six grants being funded.
“We are concerned we could lose an entire generation of younger researchers,” said FASEB director of legislative relations Jennifer Zeitzer.
While Congress has options, none look particularly promising, according to Zeitzer. For example, Congress could vote to repeal the law, but President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any such bill. While no one on Capitol Hill likes the idea of the across-the-board cuts sequestration, which gives no priority to any program, it has not provided a large enough incentive to reach a compromise as of yet.
“The idea that Congress can get its act together and do something seems pretty remote,” said Zeitzer.
The NIH’s budget will remain in limbo for some time since lawmakers are not expected to take action on the automatic cuts until after the presidential elections in November. So, supporters of science funding will have to wait at least six months to find out if their petitions have been heard.
Ultimately, the November elections could sway an outcome. For example, if Democrats maintain control of the Senate and President Obama wins reelection, Zeitzer expects more legislative gridlock with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“I think you’ll have a hard time talking to anyone who’ll want to speculate because we honestly just don’t know,” said Zeitzer.
In the end, Congress may ultimately kick the sequestration can further down the road and delay the automatic cuts for several months until a greater consensus is reached.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are continuing to move forward with the 2013 federal budget, ignoring the looming cuts for now. The White House has asked that the 2013 NIH budget remain the same as 2012 at $30.86 billion, but neither the House nor Senate committees have released its proposals.