Automatic budget cuts would devastate science, say scientists

Protesters in Los Angeles march in 2011 against federal budget cuts. Scientists have expressed concern about cuts slated to take effect in January 2013.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

Draconian multibillion-dollar budget cuts set for the beginning of 2013 could significantly hinder the pursuit of science in the U.S., according to a new analysis from the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.

Speaking out Thursday morning, representatives of the science organization joined a long list of groups warning about the potential effects of sequestration — the automatic reductions in discretionary federal funding that will take effect Jan. 2 if Congress fails to come up with a deficit reduction plan.

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.”)

California would miss out on the most funding of any state under the balanced scenario, losing more than $11 billion for research over the next five years. That’s more than twice as much as the second-biggest loser, Maryland, which would face cuts around $5.4 billion.


One “frustrating thing” about the possible cuts, Hourihan wrote in a summary of his research, is that scientists don’t yet know where the federal agencies will make cuts, if needed. He suggested that numbers and monetary value of research grants may fall, and that some programs could be terminated outright.

During the Thursday press call, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania Steven Fluharty broke down what sequestration would mean for his institution, which got more than $500 million in NIH funding alone in fiscal year 2012. He estimated that medical scientists at Penn would lose $50 million to $60 million if the reductions took effect, with 22 jobs at risk with each million cut.

“Significant advances with enormous potential could erode very quickly. Programs on the cusp of transforming discoveries would also suffer and suffer in ways that may indeed be irrefutable,” Fluharty said.

“The impact of this sequester would be truly devastating to the American scientific enterprise,” added AAAS Chief Executive Alan Leshner, who said that the reductions would affect medical research, food safety, energy independence, national security, and “efforts to come to grips with climate change.” NASA’s budget could shrink to be smaller than it has been since the 1980s. Cuts would also make it harder for young scientists to launch their careers, he said.

As for where reductions should come from if not from science, Leshner hesitated to point a finger, except to cite Alaska’s proposed $398-million “bridge to nowhere” as an example of the kind of thing that might be cut.

“Investments in science have paid off handsomely,” he said. “I want … every major investment to be based on some form of evidence that this will pay off for the country.”