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Debt pact: short-term gain, longer-term pain?

The debt agreement reached between Congress and the White House on 1 August probably means a short-term gain for science agencies, but there are clouds are on the horizon.

For fiscal year (FY) 2012, the agreement will allow for more discretionary spending—including funding for science agencies such as NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health—than is currently being considered in the House appropriations bills.

The agreement caps fiscal year discretionary spending at $1.04 trillion, which is $23 billion more than the House budget resolution but $73bn less than President Obama’s request. It also added about $35bn for the non-security accounts.

“Overall, for FY2012, the agreement provides a little bit more breathing room for science,” says Michael Lubell, a spokesperson for the American Physical Society.

It is assumed that the Senate will use these new numbers when developing FY2012 appropriations, and that extra money could translate to tangible gains for the research community.

For example, funding for the James Webb telescope—the Hubble’s successor, whose budget was zeroed out for FY2012 by the House Appropriations Committee in July—could be restored by the Senate, Lubell says.

He also suggests that roughly $17m taken from NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities (MREFC) account by House appropriators might be partially replenished by the Senate.

But a real threat is the $1.2tr or more in cuts that will be triggered over 10 years if a committee set up as part of the debt deal fails to agree on how to make needed cuts and pass it through Congress by Christmas. Observers say it is possible that no agreement will be reached, which according to Lubell could translate to an across-the-board cut of 7-11 per cent for science agencies and others.

“In the science accounts, you can’t easily trim even 7 per cent without wreaking havoc,” Lubell warns.

However, there is a silver lining.

Those so-called “sequestration” cuts would not take effect until 3 January 2012 and would apply to FY2013 appropriations. So appropriators would know that they were coming and be able to craft their bills in such a way that would spare science agencies—for example, by raising their budgets 10 per cent or so to offset them.

“It is possible to have science survive without any Draconian cuts, but politically it may be very difficult,” says Lubell.