Science agencies prepare for cuts

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Daniel Kiehart, a biophysicist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has put off the US$8,000 recharge of the gas laser he uses to probe a key motor protein in Drosophila embryos. In December, he bought his own airline ticket to a meeting in San Francisco, California. And two weeks ago, when his senior postdoc handed in her notice, he did not move to replace her. “I just can’t do that right now,” says Kiehart.

In normal times, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, would have already renewed a grant that Kiehart has held since 1984; his proposal was rated between “excellent” and “outstanding” last summer. Yet these are anything but normal times, and Kiehart is still awaiting a decision.

On 1 March, agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), based in Arlington, Virginia, face an abrupt 5.1% cut in this year’s spending under the ‘sequester’ — a cut that will be all the more painful because it must be done before the US fiscal year ends on 30 September. Although Congress might reach a last-minute deal to delay or avoid some of the reductions, agencies are wary of committing themselves to grants that they might not be able to afford, and scientists are starting to feel the sting.

The agencies are “making very conservative decisions because nobody wants to overspend and be caught”, says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

The agencies will have some flexibility in apportioning the cuts, which amount to $1.57 billion at the NIH and $288 million at the NSF. At the NIH, the 5.1% reduction would be applied to each of the 27 institutes and centres — with some protection for its Clinical Center, the research hospital in Bethesda where cuts could put patients’ lives at stake. Institute directors could cut some programmes more heavily than others, as long as the total reduction equals 5.1%.

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