What Sequestration Would Do to the Country's Science Budgets

By Megan Garber

In a new report, the Obama Administration details what will happen if Congress can't find a budget compromise before January 2013.

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President Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011 in the Oval Office, August 2, 2011. (Whitehouse.gov)

Last August, to end the debt ceiling crisis that led to a downgraded U.S. credit rating and a deeper decline in Americans' esteem for their leaders, President Obama signed into law the Budget Control Act of 2011. The legislation -- a stopgap measure meant to allow the country to raise its debt limit in the short term while reducing its deficit in the long -- included a significant stipulation: If Congress failed to produce a more permanent deficit reduction bill by early January 2013, then an automatic cut would take effect. Known as the "sequester" -- but perhaps better known as the "ticking timebomb" or "the doomsday scenario" or the "that's what we get, you guys" -- the cut would trim federal spending by roughly $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

The cut would do that, however ... by trimming roughly $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Specifically, by cutting sharply and deeply into the budgets of some 1,200 federal programs. The sequestration would cut into Medicare. It would cut into the military. It would cut into embassy security.

On the one hand, of course, those cuts are -- for now -- only speculative. "The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented," the White House notes. It was intended not as an act, itself, of fiscal responsibility, but as a disincentive against inaction: It was meant to be so bluntly punishing to the federal budget that any compromise would seem preferable by comparison. (Leon Panetta, for his part, is "so appalled" by the idea of sequestration that he has ordered the Pentagon not to begin planning for it.) Sequestration's automated slashes were intended as a failsafe -- a budgetary bomb that would go off only if Congress failed to act to defuse it. 

But Congress has, so far, done exactly that: failed to defuse. So on Friday afternoon, President Obama's Office of Management and Budget  -- in an act that was partly a week-late response to a legislative demand, partly an act of speculative information-gathering, and partly an act of political posturing -- released a report exploring the effects of sequestration. And they include, unsurprisingly, significant cuts to science programs on top of everything else. 

Science magazine highlights the science-related reductions. Among them:

  • At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), authorized spending would drop by more than $2.5 billion, to about $28.3 billion, according to the report.

  • The National Science Foundation would see a $551 million cut in its overall budget authority, to about $5.9 billion.

  • A $400 million reduction would reduce the budget of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science to about $4.5 billion.

  • NASA's science programs would drop by $417 million to about $4.7 billion, and its Exploration account would fall by $309 million to about $3.5 billion.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency's science and technology account would see a $65 million cut to about $730 million.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research, operations, and facilities account would drop $257 million to about $2.9 billion.

  • The U.S. Geological Survey would get an $88 million cut to about $1 billion.

  • The cuts would be somewhat deeper -- 9.4 percent -- for defense research programs.

So those are the numbers. The actual effects of those numbers aren't yet fully clear; budgets being what they are -- solid and nebulous at the same time -- the OMB report offers only a speculative framework for what governmental resources might look like come Doomsday and/or January. Still, though, a cut is a cut. As Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, put it: "A budget sequester in January would have a terrible short- and long-term impact on the nation's investments in scientific research and education, investments that are essential for long-term economic growth and prosperity." 

And while the whole point of the Budget Control Act was to ensure that budget cuts will, eventually, be made, the White House report is a reminder of the chilling effects that automatic slashes could have on ongoing research -- whether that research concern public health or environmental protection or disaster response or the military. It's a reminder that, when it comes to trimming budgets -- for science or anything else -- scalpels are almost aways better than axes. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/what-sequestration-would-do-to-the-countrys-science-budgets/262450/