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US budget cuts inevitable as science agencies brace for next fight

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Francis Collins

NIH

After months of anticipation and weeks of escalating political rhetoric, the axe is about to fall. At 11:59 p.m. tonight, US federal agencies will absorb across-the-board budget cuts — known as sequestration — to all government programmes, including 5% decreases in science and other non-military operations.

The cuts, which would save US$85 billion this year and reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next nine years, have already started to be felt among scientists, as agencies delayed making decisions in anticipation. But with the writing on the wall, science agencies began opening up this week about their plans for the cuts — and they include a greater degree of flexibility than typically advertised (see ‘Science agencies prepare for cuts’). Outgoing US National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh issued a statement on 27 February indicating that the agency expected to maintain funding for already-approved research grants while eliminating about 1,000 new grants.

In a news conference on 25 February, Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), projected that the agency would not complete funding for certain multi-year grants (see ‘Starvation diet’). Collins said that certain NIH contracts and support for conference travel might also be affected. “Pretty much all of those things will begin to happen on March 1 but obviously the impact will grow over the course of the following weeks,” Collins said.

With just hours left on the clock, lawmakers were looking past sequestration to a more threatening deadline later this month. The temporary spending bill that has since last fall sustained the government at 2012 budget levels expires on 27 March. Republicans and Democrats must pass another ‘continuing resolution’ or craft a more comprehensive 2013 budget agreement to avert a government shutdown. “Everybody agrees shutdown of the government is irresponsible,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. She says that risk could provide inescapable pressure for both parties to compromise on spending cuts and tax hikes to reach a budget agreement.

Some observers, including Francis Collins, hope that any budget agreement ahead of the 27 March deadline could lessen the blow of sequestration. “I will remain hopeful until somebody tells me it’s not possible,” he said.

Image credit: NIH

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