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US budget extension to keep research funds flowing

Posted on behalf of Helen Shen.

As the clock runs out at the end of this month on the US government’s 2012 fiscal year and with no sign of agreement in Congress on a budget for 2013, the House of Representatives passed a bill on 13 September that would maintain funding — including for key science agencies and departments — until 27 March, 2013.

If the measure passes the Senate, as expected, and is signed into law by President Barack Obama, it will effectively put off a showdown over the 2013 budget process until after the upcoming federal election on 6 November.

The so-called ‘continuing resolution’ provides temporary funds to run the federal government with most functions remaining frozen at their 2012 budget levels.

One exception of consequence for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) allows for additional funding for continued work on the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system — designed to monitor weather and climate data, with the first of two launches scheduled for 2017.

Yet, for cash-strapped agencies anticipating funding increases in the 2013 budget, the continuing resolution spells six more months of austerity.  That includes the National Science Foundation, which is slated for a roughly $300 million or 4.3%  increase in Obama’s 2013 budget request and the relevant House bill covering the granting agency’s 2013 appropriation.

The status quo resolution could be even more painful for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which lost nearly one-third of its budget in 2012 after director John Holdren clashed with House Republicans over his meetings with Chinese science officials. The House has passed a 2013 budget that, when enacted, would restore Holdren’s funding to a more robust level. But under the continuing resolution OSTP must continue to make do at its current skin-and-bones allocation.

For the National Institutes of Health (NIH), maintaining the current budget may delay some unwelcome measures that the House is aiming to impose in 2013.  For instance, House legislation that covers next year’s NIH budget also includes a provision that would require the agency to demonstrate to the Secretary of Health and Human Services that the money requested for each grant fund research of “significantly high scientific value” and measurable impact on human health. Biomedical research advocates argue that the agency’s internal grant review process already ensures value-for-dollar and that the new provision would simply slow the disbursement of funds and over-regulate NIH. In a 5 September letter to the House Appropriations Committee, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) expressed concern that the measure would severely limit NIH-funded research.

The continuing resolution represents a mixed bag for researchers, according to FASEB legislative relations director Jennifer Zeitzer. “NIH needs stable funding, and operating under these temporary agreements is not good for them,” she says. But the stopgap measure also stalls progress on new and possibly more restrictive NIH funding rules, “so, that’s the good news,” says Zeitzer.

The continuing resolution also ignores another looming deadline, an enforced across-the-board budget cut or ‘sequester’ that would severely slash science agencies across the government if it goes into effect as scheduled in January 2013, with similar consequences for other science agencies. Separate House legislation introduced on 10 September could dodge the draconian cut, but the negotiations with the Senate and White House that would be required to stop the chop are not expected until after the election.

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