I’d like to briefly comment on the budget(s) being negotiated in Congress. In particular, I’ll try to focus on the impact on investment in science, though there are other important issues as well, such as the unemployment benefits that apparently won’t be extended and the cuts on military retirees’ benefits. The budget plan led by Rep. Paul Ryan (who is a questionable choice for the job) and Sen. Patty Murray has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate later today.
Budget negotiations are often boring but are nonetheless important. The current two-year budget plan has advantages and disadvantages. The first and most ridiculous “advantage” is that a budget deal would avoid a government shutdown. Such is the state of affairs in US politics. The shutdown harmed many sectors of the government: clinical trials at the NIH were suspended; inspections and other work was suspended at the FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission; staff at the CDC and EPA were put on furlough; key tests for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble) were suspended; the National Science Foundation canceled its Antarctic research program; and three of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s telescopes were shut down, resulting in a substantial loss of data. Ultimately, this considerably hurts US competitiveness in science: according to the OECD, the US is ranked 21st and 26th in science and math, below a few developing countries such as Vietnam.
An important advantage of the current budget bill is that it eases some of the across-the-board spending cuts due to the “sequestration”. These cuts were extremely harmful on basic scientific research, which already receives less than 1% of the federal budget, as opposed to at least 20% to the military. Earlier this year, more than fifty Nobel laureates wrote to Congress, urging them to remove these cuts to science investment. Scientific research will be affected for years to come, and research funded by the NIH, NSF, NASA, and the DOE’s Office of Science are particularly affected. Federally funded agencies and universities have attempted to sustain their research programs and avoid laying off scientists, but some may no longer be able to continue doing so. Science and engineering education at colleges and universities have been affected as well.
Under the Ryan/Murray deal, approximately 75% of the spending reduction under sequestration will remain in place. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the deal may result in a restoration of roughly $8 billion in R&D funding above sequester levels over the next two years, though the final allocations for FY 2014 are now up to appropriators.
Though the budget deal may be better than no deal at all, it seems possible that congressional lawmakers could come up with and pass a better budget. Science research and education should be spared the sequestration’s cuts.