In Defense of Science: How the Fiscal Cliff Could Cripple Research Enterprise

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This time of year, trainees make the rounds to interview for graduate programs, medical school, and residency or fellowship positions. In many cases, they spend a decade or more after college before they can move on to independent careers in academia or industry. As a director of the Physician Scientist Training Program at Northwestern, my discussions with these young men and women invariably turn to their plans for the future, their much-deserved opportunities to practice their trade for which they have been so thoroughly trained, and the challenges they might face in research. But this year I try not to go there. This year the fiscal cliff looms

If the U.S. Congress fails to act, the now clichéd across-the-board tax cuts on discretionary spending -- the so called "sequestration" clause of the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- will kick in. One might argue that this could trigger a recession; but there is almost no denial that it will cripple U.S. scientific enterprise.

The sequestration will cause an approximately 8 percent cut in funding for federal research agencies. This includes the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Agency, the Environment Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. These do not even take into account the proposed cuts in research spending by the military.

Scientists everywhere are worried. Federal agencies do not just fund science in their own institutes; through their extramural programs they provide grants to investigators in universities and medical schools across the nation. No private foundation or corporation even comes close in providing this magnitude of research support. Scientific communities such as the Society for Neuroscience, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the American Society for Cell Biology and others are aghast, urging their members to speak out.

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