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Science Community Sounds Alarm Over Sequestration

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Sequestration, as originally conceived, was to be the mutually assured destruction corollary to the budget wars -- an idea so untenable it would compel good behavior from a polarized Congress. But, as we’ve learned, expecting Congress to play on the same team is a lofty goal and, in the aftermath of the super committee’s failure to reach a deficit reduction agreement last year, scalpels have become but a distant memory. The axes are being sharpened and, first on the chopping block, are the sciences.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, a new analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows sequestration’s $1.2 trillion in cuts will hit the science community especially hard:

Assuming cuts are split between defense and non-defense research and development (a so-called “balanced sequestration” approach,) the automatic reductions would slash $11.3 billion from the National Institutes of Health budget and $2.1 billion from the National Science Foundation budget over the coming five years (fiscal years 2013-2017), the AAAS report calculated. If Congress adopts an alternative plan to shift the cuts away from defense, the reductions would total $26.1 billion for the NIH and $4.9 billion for the NSF over the same period. (Matthew Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program and author of the report, said in a phone call with reporters Thursday that the not-balanced scenario was an unlikely one, but one that was “still worth being aware of.”)

The analysis says that the timing of sequestration is particularly bad, given the already stagnant funding of the past decade. With the exception of a one-time infusion of cash from the Recovery Act, budgets for research and development have remained flat over the past decade. Funding for nondefense research and development has already been reduced by 5 percent over the last two years.

Guidance  the White House released earlier in September showed that government science funding would be slashed by 8.2 percent. According to a highlight of the cuts from Science Magazine, they include:

  • At the National Institutes of Health, authorized spending would drop by more than $2.5 billion, to about $28.3 billion.
  • The National Science Foundation would see a $551 million cut in its overall budget authority, to about $5.9 billion.
  • A $400 million reduction would bring the budget of the Energy Department's Office of Science to about $4.5 billion.
  • NASA's science programs would drop by $417 million to about $4.7 billion, and its Exploration account would fall by $309 million to about $3.5 billion.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency's science and technology account would see a $65 million cut to about $730 million.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research, operations and facilities account would drop $257 million to about $2.9 billion.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey would get an $88 million cut to about $1 billion.
  • The cuts would be somewhat deeper -- 9.4 percent -- for defense research programs.

As time runs out, scientists are sounding the alarm that the pain doled out by sequestration goes beyond the serious, but relatively short-term, job losses -- the impact could be felt generations from now as progress in medical research, food safety, energy independence, planetary science and climate change suddenly ground to a halt.

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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