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Looming Budget Cuts Threaten U.S. Research Advances

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For decades, U.S. researchers have been working to solve the elemental secrets of human health and disease: the function of the immune system, the triggers for cancer, the remarkable plasticity of pluripotent stem cells. Today, says University of Pennsylvania Senior Vice Provost for Research Steven J. Fluharty, the life sciences have come to a transformative moment—only to find historic progress threatened by deep federal budget cuts that could be just weeks away.

At a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS, Fluharty joined other science leaders urging Congress and the White House to avert the “sequestration” that could slash the U.S. investment in research and development by 8.4%—some $58 billion—by 2018. Cuts of that magnitude, they said, would jeopardize work in areas such as genetic medicine, advanced manufacturing, and batteries that could allow a 10-fold increase in the range of electric cars.

“We’re talking about dramatically reducing the rate of discovery and innovation in this country, which has traditionally been the lifeblood of our economy,” said Fluharty.

The 14 November briefing reflects broad outreach by the U.S. science and engineering sector that has intensified as each day gets closer to the so-called fiscal cliff. As elected officials search for a debt-reduction compromise by year’s end, both parties have signaled support for research investment.

AAAS has been prominent in the effort, providing detailed budget analysis, building alliances with other S&T organizations, and working with lawmakers. The AAAS Office of Government Relations has established a Web site to provide background on the potential budget cuts (www.aaas. org/go/sequester). And AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner has detailed the importance of federal R&D in publications ranging from the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee to Germany’s weekly Die Zeit.

“AAAS is a leading voice for the scientific enterprise,” Leshner said, “and we have a responsibility to ensure that lawmakers and the public understand the severe consequences if these cuts take effect.”

The sequestration deadline is the result of a 2011 compromise among lawmakers that averted a budget crisis by allowing an increase in the federal government’s debt ceiling. Under the deal, if lawmakers can’t reduce the deficit on their own, automatic sequestration cuts kick in.

Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, described for the bipartisan, standing-room-only Capitol Hill audience the potential impact on top federal science agencies. At the Department of Defense, R&D would fall 9.1%, or $33.5 billion, over 5 years. The Department of Energy would lose 8.2%, or nearly $4.6 billion. Both the Department of Agriculture and NASA would lose 7.6%, with NASA’s R&D funding falling to its lowest level since 1988.

A plan approved in the U.S. House of Representatives would exempt defense from sequestration, but that would mean cuts of 17.5% for nondefense R&D. While that’s unlikely to advance, profound concerns have galvanized science and engineering associations, universities, and others in the U.S. research community.

One key focus: the projected cut of 7.6%, or $11.3 billion, to R&D at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Research!America, the medical and health research advocacy alliance, reported 77% of respondents to its recent national public opinion poll favored federal funding for research to improve the health care system. Nearly 70% favor increased federal support for scientific research that advances knowledge and drives innovation.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology warned that the cuts would be “devastating.” NIH would fund 2300 fewer medical research grants in 2013, the federation said, forcing lab closures and tens of thousands of layoffs. Earlier this month, its call for action generated more than 8000 e-mails to Congress.

Whether this combined effort is as large as past campaigns is uncertain. “There are so many more players today than there were back in the 90s, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons,” said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. “We’ve matured, and we have a more sophisticated view of how best to advocate for science.”

But the message this fall is inherently pragmatic: Reduced funding means reduced discovery and reduced benefits for society. And that could undermine a new generation of scientists and engineers just as they are coming into the professions. The nation can’t afford such losses, experts said at the Capitol Hill briefing.

The world is growing more competitive, and other countries are investing heavily in R&D, said Orlando Auciello, formerly of Argonne National Laboratory and now Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “So you have to tell your representatives in Congress: ‘This is not red or blue... If we don’t work for the United States of America, we’re going to be in trouble.’ ”