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Looming cutbacks threaten long-term US research

Sweeping US budget cuts set to begin in 2013 would reduce federal research and development funds by $57.5 billion over the next five years, according to a report released on 27 September by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) based in Washington, DC.

Known as a ‘sequester’, the across-the-board cut would come into effect on 2 January, unless Congress can agree on an alternative budget plan to lower the federal deficit. But with lawmakers adjourned until after the US presidential election in November, no immediate action appears likely to forestall the 8-10% budget reductions that were enacted last year in order to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade.

“Sequestration is really a long-term challenge,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, in a teleconference.

Hourihan’s analysis tracks expected science and health spending under sequestration for the next five years, building on 2013 projections released earlier by the Office of Management and Budget.

By 2017, the AAAS report estimates that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would lose $11.3 billion or 7.6% in research and development funding. Sequestration would cost the National Science Foundation (NSF) $2.1 billion, and quash research and development funding for NASA to levels not seen since the 1980s, said Hourihan. A selection of projected cuts spanning the next five years can be found here.

“The dollars drained from the research pipeline would knock the wind out of US innovation at the very moment that it is most needed to refuel the economy,” said Mary Woolley, president of the Virginia-based research advocacy group Research!America in a recent statement.

“Our pre-eminence in science is being threatened,” said AAAS chief executive Alan Leshner during the teleconference. He noted that US investments in research and development are flagging as those of China and other countries are rapidly increasing. Furthermore, cuts to funding agencies such as the NIH ”will send a very bad message to younger potential scientists,” who often depend on research grants to establish their careers, said Leshner.

At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, sequestration would slash at least $50-60 million in annual support, according to senior vice provost for research Steven Fluharty, who also participated in the teleconference. According to the university’s estimates, every $1 million cut would cost 23-27 jobs there. Fluharty said the damage to new and developing University of Pennsylvania programs would be “possibly irreparable.”

Pennsylvania ranks ninth among state research dollars lost under sequestration, according to the AAAS report. California, Maryland, and Virginia top the list as the hardest-hit states.

While the current plan balances cuts between defense and non-defense programs, science and health agencies could suffer even greater setbacks, depending on who holds the upper hand in Congress and the White House after the November election. In March, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that could shift the burden of the sequester onto non-defense programs in order to maintain US military spending.

“Cuts of this scale would push most agency budgets back by at least a decade,” projected Hourihan.

As the largest funder of non-defense research and development, the NIH would lose $26.1 billion or 17.5% of its funding, if sequestration cuts were applied only to non-defense funds. Hourihan found that the NSF could lose $4.9 billion through 2017 under the House sequestration proposal.

Although the House budget resolution was defeated in the Senate, Hourihan said similar proposals have emerged before and may again in the future. He called passage of such a bill unlikely, but “enough of a possibility that it’s worth the scientific community be aware of.”


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