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Prepare for ‘distressing’ $10bn budget cuts, warns AAAS

The continuing appropriations that President Obama signed into law on 26 March will reduce federal investment in R&D by nearly 7 per cent, or almost $10 billion, in the current fiscal year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) warns. For the remainder of FY2013, the newly enacted law mostly maintains the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration that came into effect on 1 March.

“The only realistic response is disappointment that Congress was unable to avoid sequestration,” says Matt Hourihan, who directs AAAS’ R&D budget and policy programme. “The end result is still sweeping across-the-board cuts—a $10 billion reduction in R&D—and that is pretty distressing,” he states.

With the passage of the final FY2013 appropriations, investment in federal research will reach its lowest point since 2002, according to an analysis released by AAAS. But by signing the measure into law, the president managed to avoid a government shutdown that was due to occur on 27 March. Federal agencies have been operating on an expiring continuing resolution that froze their budgets at FY2012 levels from the beginning of FY2013 on 1 October.

Under the final FY2013 deal, the National Institutes of Health sees its budget frozen at the previous year’s level—approximately $30bn—and the sequestration will cut the agency’s funding by about 5 per cent, or $1.5bn. The reductions would have been worse for NIH, but an amendment to the final appropriations raised its budget by $71 million.

In other good news, the final spending package also provides extra money for the National Science Foundation to offset sequestration. The agency received a final appropriation that was above its FY2012 level, and the new law also provides NSF’s basic research account with $221m more than the House had proposed. That means 550 more grants, supporting 7,000 scientists, teachers and students, according to Senate estimates.

Analysis by AAAS and others found that this bump in NSF’s funding means the agency only needs to cut about 2.4 per cent from its programmes, instead of the estimated 5 per cent reduction under sequestration. Science advocacy groups point out that the extra money spares NSF from having to slash 1,000 research grants, as it had predicted under sequestration.

The president and CEO of Research!America, Mary Woolley, calls the increases for NIH and NSF “modest,” and she says they are “not nearly enough” to counter sequestration. “These arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts will stymie US medical progress to the detriment of Americans’ health and economic prosperity,” Woolley asserts.

Hourihan says the extra support for NIH and NSF represent “positive developments in the borders”, and he expresses hope that funding will be restored to science agencies next year and in future years. “It could certainly have been worse, but we are setting a pretty low bar,” Hourihan says. “This is absolutely a negative outcome for federal R&D, and there will absolutely be fewer funds for research and for grantees.”

The appropriations process for FY2014 will begin when Congress returns from its two-week spring recess in early April, and that will likely be the next opportunity to reverse the effects of sequestration and increase the budgets of science agencies.