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“Sequestration” Budget Cuts Would Cripple U.S. Scientific Progress, Experts Warn

The looming possibility of deep, across-the-board budget cuts—known as sequestration—poses historic risks for U.S. research and development, experts said at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS. Unless lawmakers find a compromise by year’s end to avert the cuts, the crippling impact could be felt for a generation, they warned, even as other nations are increasing R&D investments.

Without an agreement, sequestration would be imposed automatically beginning in the first week of January. It could slash the U.S. R&D investment by 8.4%—some $58 billion—over five years. That would mean laboratory closures and layoffs, the experts said, and it would jeopardize current research in areas ranging from genetic medicine and advanced manufacturing to batteries that could allow a 10-fold increase in the range of electric cars. It might also discourage a new generation from careers in science and engineering.

“There is a great deal at stake here,” said Steven J. Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania. “In the near term, we’re talking about job loss. We’re talking about dramatically reducing the rate of discovery and innovation in this country, which has traditionally been the lifeblood of our economy. In the longer term, there is no doubt that we will impact on the very discoveries that will improve our ability to both treat and ultimately to prevent diseases.”


Speakers at the 14 November Capitol Hill briefing reviewed the potential budgetary impacts of sequestration on federal science agencies. Watch highlights from the briefing at the AAAS YouTube channel. | Video by Carla Schaffer

“Funding cuts may also result in reduction of postdoctoral and graduate student appointments at our national laboratories,” said Orlando Auciello, Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. More broadly, that would jeopardize “the training and the supply of the next generation of future scientists and engineers who can make a tremendous impact in the future economy of the United States.”

The alarms sounded by a broad spectrum of U.S. science and engineering groups reflect not just a concern for science, but for the long-term economic and social health of the nation, said Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS.

“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 that will result if these cuts take effect.”

AAAS has been prominent in the outreach 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. And Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, 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.

The 14 November briefing explored the impact of sequestration on government agencies, research universities, national laboratories, and state governments before a bipartisan, standing-room-only audience that included many congressional staffers. While the budget landscape appears grim, speakers also noted signals of bipartisan recognition in Congress on the importance of R&D to future economic growth.

The briefing was organized in conjunction with the House Research and Development Caucus, and featured remarks by the caucus co-chairs, U.S. Representatives Judy Biggert (R-Illinois) and Rush Holt (D-New Jersey). It was just one facet of a broad outreach by the U.S. science and engineering sector that has intensified as the nation inches closer to the so-called fiscal cliff at the start of 2013.

‘R&D Creates

Generally, there are two elements to the fiscal cliff: A series of expiring tax cuts that would raise taxes for most every American household and business, and the automatic budget cuts resulting from sequestration. The threat of sequestration results from 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. The White House and congressional leaders have already begun negotiations to address fiscal cliff issues.

Holt, in his comments at the briefing, called the threat of sequestration “an artificial crisis” that is distracting the nation from solving important challenges.

“This country has important things we should be doing in housing, transportation, in telecommunications, in energy, in agriculture—and on and on—in areas where research has a large part,” Holt said. “We should be doing those things instead of talking about what we cannot do…Research and development creates jobs now.”

Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, detailed for the Capitol Hill audience how the costs of programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other mandatory programs have taken an ever growing portion of the federal budget since 1970s. In effect, he said, sequestration seeks to close the federal deficit by shrinking discretionary programs that account for less than a third of the federal budget.

The federal government’s overall R&D investment, in constant dollars, has been declining slowly over the past decade. According to Hourihan’s analysis, sequestration would cut defense R&D by another 9.1%, or about $36 billion, over the next five years; non-defense spending would fall by 7.4%, or about $22 billion. [See his presentation slides.]

Click on image to see the full slide presentation from Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, delivered at the 14 November 2012 Capitol Hill briefing.

The result would be substantial losses in R&D investment for top federal science agencies. At the Department of Defense, R&D would fall 9.1%, or $33.5 billion, over five 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.

Those losses also would have a significant impact on state economies, Hourihan reported. California alone stands to lose $11.3 billion over five years, an 8.5% cut in its federal R&D funding that will be felt at universities, national laboratories, and other research centers. Maryland would lose $5.4 billion, or 8.1% of its federal R&D funds. Virginia would lose $4.3 billion (8.8%) and Texas would lose $2.8 billion (8.6%).

The R&D reductions would be far more significant under a plan approved in the House of Representatives earlier this year. That would exempt defense from sequestration and shift all of the budget reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, forcing cuts estimated by Hourihan at 17.5%. However, he noted that the Senate is unlikely to approve that plan.

Ultimately, he said, successful efforts to reduce the federal deficit will require “a much more broad and balanced approach.”

Slowing the Health Care Revolution?

One of the key points of current concern is the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hourihan reported that sequestration would impose a cut of 7.6%, or $11.3 billion, to its R&D portfolio. Research!America, the medical and health research advocacy alliance, has reported that 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 has warned 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 emails to Congress.

At the Capitol Hill briefing, Fluharty said that, of Penn’s $900 million research portfolio this year, $540 million come from NIH for research across a range of disciplines in science, medicine, and engineering. Cuts forced by sequestration could cost Penn an estimated $50 million to $60 million, he said. That means smaller grants and fewer of them.

“That’s a loss of a minimum of 1000 jobs” at Penn alone, he added. “These are talented individuals, not easily replaced.”

Further, Fluharty said, the loss would weaken the critically important partnership between universities, U.S. national laboratories, and the federal government that has produced extraordinary economic growth and social benefits over the past half-century.

He explained: “Things that many of us now take for granted—the regular use of aspirin (to protect against heart attacks), the vaccines that have prevented some of the childhood diseases that plagued earlier generations, the use of lasers, a multitude of imaging technologies, new devices that hold the promise of curing blindness, advances in gene therapy, which also have been applied to congenital blindness—all of these have resulted from this very successful partnership that is at risk now.”

Inevitably, such losses would have an impact on research currently underway and in the generation ahead. The effect is compounded, speakers said, because years and sometimes decades of work have led to a critical juncture: Researchers’ understanding of the human genome, the immune system, the brain and the nervous system, pluripotent stem cells, and other powerful factors in human health has advanced so far that they are on the verge of developing revolutionary new therapies.

“The ability, for instance, to harness your own immune system to fight invading diseases,” Fluharty said. “The promise not just of developing vaccines that reduce the deleterious consequences of disease, but that actually prevent diseases, including cancer vaccines. The enormous potential of induced pluripotent stem cells for regenerating organs that have been damaged by diseases. All of these are the result of funding through the federal agencies and the partnership that drives innovation and discovery in these countries. NIH has been a partner in all of this.”

Auciello, at Texas, underscored the importance of that partnership. Innovation developed with federal investment drives innovation in the private sector. That goes beyond health and medicine, he said, to every field of science and engineering—agriculture, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing.

Before moving to Texas, Auciello was an Argonne Distinguished Fellow at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. In 16 years there, he actively participated in one research collaboration between national labs, universities and private industry that developed an artificial retina—a microchip that is currently implanted in the eye to restore partial vision to people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Argonne’s Advance Photon Source, one of the world’s most powerful x-ray synchrotrons, allowed researchers to study human physiological processes at the nano scale—and helped to produce the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Chevy Volt hybrid car uses a lithium-ion battery developed at Argonne and leased to General Motors, Auciello said. “If we can develop the next generation of lithium-based batteries—lithium-sulfur batteries—that may enable a 500-mile electric car,” he added. “This is huge. But if we don’t do the fundamental and applied science we need to do, we may not get there. And that will impact one of the key industries relevant to the economy of the United States.”

“We Cannot Be on a Rollercoaster”

Speakers at the AAAS briefing warned that budget uncertainty and instability undermines the strength of the U.S. research enterprise.

“We need stable and predictable funding,” Fluharty said. “We cannot be on a rollercoaster where one day there’s a windfall and the next day a shortage. It is nearly impossible to conduct a successful goal-directed research program without knowing the resources, reliably, that will be available for you as you plan for the long term. And that’s what this is—it’s a long-term investment.”

Budget instability could have a harsh impact on a new generation, said Leshner. “I would particularly emphasize the fact that young scientists, or potential young scientists, would look at extremely difficult and stressed careers” and move instead into other fields, he said. The result: The future of innovation in the United States would be “severely compromised.”

A national commitment to strong, stable funding for R&D is critically important to the economy, Auciello added, especially at a time when many nations are following the model long-established by the United States: aggressive investment in science and engineering, and in science-related education, to drive economic growth and produce a wide range of social benefits.

Speakers acknowledged hopeful signals of R&D support from both Republicans and Democrats, but also recognized the challenges posed by the profoundly polarized political climate in Washington, D.C.

“If I could give any message to Congress,” Fluharty said, “I would say: ‘The election is over. The campaigning can stop now. It’s time to govern, and governing here will mean making very difficult decisions, challenging ones, but decisions made [based on] prioritization and evidence-based analysis of the real return on investment.”

Added Auciello: “You have to tell your Congress people: ‘This is not about red or blue. This is about the United States of America. And if we don’t work for the United States of America, we’re going to be in trouble.’”


View the full video, or video highlights of the Capitol Hill briefing on sequestration organized by AAAS.

View resources on possible budget sequestration collected by the AAAS Office of Government Relations.

View slides from the presentation made by Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.


Edward W. Lempinen

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