Federal and State Research Could Be Crippled by Looming Cuts, Says New AAAS Report

Key areas of U.S. science could be crippled over the next five years and states such as California, Texas, and Virginia could lose billions of dollars in federal research and development funds unless Congress acts in its post-election lame duck session to prevent automatic budget cuts in January, according to a new AAAS analysis released yesterday.

Report author Matt Hourihan writes that the automatic budget cuts—called “sequestration”—could reduce federal R&D spending by $57.5 billion, or 8.4%, through 2017, or an average of $11.5 billion per year. Defense R&D could be reduced 9.1%, bringing it back roughly to 2002 levels, while nondefense agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy could see R&D cuts of 7.6% each over five years.

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, told reporters that the looming cuts would be particularly distressing since federal funding for R&D already has declined 10% in real dollars since 2010. It could further stall essential studies, with potential impacts on medical research, food safety, energy independence, national security, and efforts to come to grips with climate change.


The chart shows three scenarios for federal non-defense research and development spending: 1) The blue line represents spending as capped under the 2011 Budget and Control Act (BCA), which was approved by Congress and the White House to raise the debt level and avert a budget crisis. 2) The red line shows cuts if budget sequestration goes into effect in January on both defense and non-defense spending, as provided in the BCA. 3) The black line represents R&D spending if the sequestration is shifted only to non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending, which has been approved in the House of Representatives but has not advanced in the Senate. (The line for ARRA represents the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the temporary stimulus package passed to address the severe recession that started in 2008.)| Source: Based on AAAS estimates of R&D funding and the FY 2013 budget, and CBO analyses of the Budget Control Act.
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“The impact of this sequester would be truly devastating to the American scientific enterprise,” Leshner said.


The original sequestration agreement was the result of a 2011 compromise among lawmakers that headed off a federal budget crisis by allowing an increase in the federal government’s debt ceiling. But it requires new cuts by 2013; if Congress and the White House cannot agree on some package of increased revenue and/or reduced spending to reduce the deficit, across-the-board cuts of about 8-10% would be automatically imposed, split between defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, told reporters in a telephone conference call Thursday 27 September that many of the nondefense agency R&D budgets would drop to the lowest point in a decade or more. NASA’s R&D budget could fall to levels not seen since the 1980s, he said.

Meanwhile, Hourihan said, 19 states stand to lose at least $1 billion in federal R&D money. California would top the list, with a loss of $11.3 billion. Maryland would lose $5.4 billion overall, Virginia $4.3 billion, and Texas $2.8 billion.

Matt Hourihan
Matt Hourihan

Hourihan also looked at a worst-case sequestration scenario in which lawmakers decline to trim defense spending and shift the burden of the automatic cuts to nondefense programs, a step that has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives but has not advanced in the Senate. Under that scenario, many agencies could lose more than twice as much R&D funding over the next five years. NIH, for example, would lose $26.1 billion instead of $11.3 billion). This scenario may be unlikely, Hourihan said, but nevertheless remains a concern.

Steven J. Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania, told reporters that there are 740 principal investigators at his school who receive $500,000 or more for research from the National Institutes of Health. He said cuts of the magnitude envisioned under sequestration could mean a loss of $50 million to $60 million in NIH support. He estimated that 23 to 27 jobs are lost for each $1 million in lost research support.

Fluharty said that scientific research depends on predictability of funding over the long term. With cuts envisioned under sequestration, he said, “significant advances with enormous potential could erode very quickly.” Fluharty noted that biomedical science is poised for advances in personalized medicine—tailoring treatments to each individual’s genetic makeup—thanks to ongoing basic research on cellular and genetic mechanisms.


Steven J. Fluharty [Image @ Steven J. Fluharty)
Steven J. Fluharty | Image @ Steven J. Fluhart

Leshner was asked during the teleconference why supporters of science should be viewed any differently than other groups seeking to preserve funding for programs such as Medicare, food stamps, or national defense. While acknowledging that it is a difficult fiscal climate for all federal agencies and programs, Leshner called for “evidence-based budgeting” and said data on “the impact of American investments in science are extremely clear.” It has paid off well over the years, he said, in technical innovation and economic growth.