Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Does "Falling Off the Fiscal Cliff" Mean for Research?

Scientists are always worried about their funding. It’s the nature of the job; while most scientists would love to spend all of their time on experiments, reality dictates that they have to spend a significant amount of time writing grant and fellowship proposals. Faculty compete with their peers for large grants, and at the same time postdocs and grad students are competing for fellowship awards. For many if not most scientific disciplines, the primary source of these funds is the federal government. Thus, when news comes from Washington that the pool of money could shrink precipitously - as it has in late 2012 - the stress and worry become amplified.
How did we get here? Congress has not been able to work out a budget the way that it used to in the past. Part of the political difficulty comes from members of Congress having different electoral incentives to vote for or against budgetary measures (repeal of the Bush tax cuts, spending cuts, etc.). This led to the debt ceiling crisis and subsequently the Budget Control Act of 2011, a rather convoluted path that contains provisions for automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration. These cuts were designed as a “Sword of Damocles” to hang over Congress’s head during the 2012 session, giving members of Congress impetus to act on a budget either through traditional legislative negotiations or through the “super committee”. Despite their intent, both avenues failed to produce budget legislation, and the sequestration cuts are slated to go into effect Jan 2, 2013, in the event this month’s lame duck Congress does not come to an agreement with President Obama (or if both parties decide not to punt to a later date). Currently Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner are conducting negotiations on budget measures that could be put to a vote before sequestration takes effect. Much of the media coverage on sequestration has focused on broad economic consequences of sequestration or on the fight over taxes and entitlement programs, but I would like to focus on what is at stake for the scientific enterprise.
Sequestration calls for 8.2% cuts to be distributed amongst both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, with only a few programs spared such as Medicare and Social Security. Federal funding for science related-research across all agencies would face a $3.9 billion cut in 2013 alone. Two of the primary federal funding agencies for universities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Nation Science Foundation (NSF) would face cuts of $2.5 billion and $586 million, respectively. The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, had said that his agency would be unable to award about 2,300 grants in 2013 that it otherwise would have granted. Areport by Research!America cites the economic toll  for NIH cuts in human terms: 33,000 jobs and $4.5 billion in economic activity lost. Cuts to the NSF would result in 19,300 researchers, students and technicians no longer being funded.
The anxiety in the scientific community is palpable. The funding climate is already tense after the one-time infusion of funds from the 2010 stimulus dried up. Here in New Haven, the Yale Daily News recently took the temperature of Yale faculty who are facing the effects of a potential fiscal cliff:
“I think we are all terrified,” said Chris Cotsapas, assistant professor of neurology and genetics at the Yale School of Medicine. “If I don’t bring money in, then I can’t pay the people in my lab, and I can’t pay my salary. It’s kind of that simple.”

83% of Yale’s federal research funding comes through the NIH, and even though it is an elite research institution, nobody will be immune from the effects of a significant budget cuts. MITprojects a loss of $40 million in research revenue. Undoubtedly a prolonged sequestration would have dire effects on graduate and undergraduate education.
But beyond the economic impact on universities, their researchers, and the local coffee shops and retail stores that their salaries go into, there is also the loss of innovation and new knowledge that comes from the research enterprise. Basic and translational science funded by the NIH provides avenues for drug development by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. NSF-funded research enables new technologies for clean energy. Researchers create new inventions that can be patented by universities and brought into incubator startups or acquired by larger companies. If sequestration takes effect and Congress does not restore the funds, research-fueled innovation and invention will inevitably slow down and sputter across many industries. New life-saving therapies that otherwise would be developed in startups to and brought to clinical trials over the coming decade could be lost. Throw in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, $490 million) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA, $319 million) and the health and well-being of the nation becomes an even bigger concern.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. The scientific community is organizing to make its voice heard on Capitol Hill. Groups such as Research!America, the Coalition for Life Sciences (CLS) and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) provide opportunities for scientists to learn more about the legislative process, email their members of congress, or even meet them on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the research community is a few years behind the business community and other constituencies in terms of developing these relationships. It’s time to catch up. If you are a faculty, postdoc, grad student or a technician who is funded by a federal research award, call your congressman and let them know what sequestration means to your career and your livelihood.


Kenneth Buck 
PhD, Dept. Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology

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