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Sequestration Outlook Gets Darker

Kelly Rae Chi

The White House has released a report on the effects of sequestration on science funding, and the picture it paints isn’t pretty.  

A new analysis of the looming sequestration paints an even darker picture for science funding levels than was previously estimated. As a result, science advocates are on edge about what happens if automatic, across-the-board cuts to federal funding become reality.

United for Medical Research coalition organized a press conference on September 20 to rally against sequestration for science agencies. Source: United for Medical Research

On January 2, 2013, unless Congress and the President approve a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, the Budget Control Act of 2011 dictates that federal spending in every category will be cut to meet that goal.

And according to the report released last week by the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB), that would be very bad news for science agencies. For example, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) could face an 8.2% cut, which would be about $2.53 billion of its budget for fiscal year 2013. That, of course, assumes that the NIH will be funded at its 2012 level, which was $30.7 billion, through a continuing resolution agreement expected to be passed this week by Congress.

If sequestration goes into effect, the NIH grant success rates could drop as low as 14%, according to calculations by research advocacy organization Research!America. This would be a new historic low for the science agency. “We can’t afford it. Inflation’s already eating away at NIH,” said Ellie Dehoney, Research!America’s vice president of Policy and Programs. “We’re at such a crucial time scientifically. We need to find solutions.”

The cuts will have an extensive impact. “The loss of funds due to sequestration will curtail vital research projects at universities and institutions in all 50 states and result in layoffs of thousands of Americans,” said Judith Bond, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), in a statement.

How exactly sequestration will impact NIH-funded labs remains unclear. In June, before a hearing convened by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, NIH Director Francis Collins said that a then-estimated 7.8% cut from the NIH budget would reduce the number of grants awarded in a given year by 2300.

The speed of the cut—over a nine-month period—may also affect whether the NIH slows down on new grants or trims existing grants, but it’s likely that no one will be spared. Since it’s unlikely that NIH will be able to immediately reduce salary costs for federal employees, the extramural program may bear a bigger burden than the intramural program. In their estimates, FASEB forecasts that the extramural program might face an 11.1% reduction in research grants.

The long-term effects on research are hard to fathom, especially considering that an 8.2% cut to the budget would become “the new normal” in years to come, said Dehoney. In other words, any later percentage increases in the NIH budget would be calculated from a budget that has already been lowered by about $2.53 billion.

FASEB, Research!America, and other organizations are encouraging scientists to call their federal representatives to rally against the sequestration of science funding.

Keywords:  nih funding