Sequestering Science


On January 2, Congress kept alive the threat of sequestration of federal funds, as Washington gave itself another two months to deal with spending cuts. Across-the-board automatic budget reductions of more than eight percent in all government agencies remain a possibility. And while we hear about how this will imperil defense, health care and other vital social programs, what has gone largely unnoticed is one area that strikes at the core of our strength as a nation. The science enterprise of the country -- the sweeping investments in research that has powered the U.S. economy for much of the last 60 years -- is seriously threatened by the havoc that sequestration could bring.

Even without sequestration, scientific research in the U.S. is already under siege. Budgets for research have remained essentially flat over the last few years, and in 2011 the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded roughly one in five scientific proposals it received. Exciting research ideas, which could have been the foundation for breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and engineering, have already fallen by the wayside as scientists struggle to keep underfunded laboratories in operation.

And on top of an already strained science budget, we now have to deal with sequestration. NIH Director Francis Collins warned that mandated budget cuts could lead to the loss of 2,300 biomedical research grants funded by his agency. By some estimates, it could also result in loss of funding for as many as 2,000 research laboratories supported by NSF. It similarly jeopardizes research by the Department of Energy, NASA and every other agency that assures our scientific research is the best in the world.

This will be, without a doubt, devastating for science. Just the mere threat of sequestration is already taking its toll. In this fiscal twilight zone we find ourselves in, simply waiting for final word from Congress on how the budget axe will fall is already affecting scientific research around the nation. It has forced federal agencies to defer funding for many research projects throughout the country due to uncertainties that plague their budgets.

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