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Temporary immunity?

US science agencies emerged relatively unscathed from the 2012 budget. But is this the victory a one-off happy accident? Rebecca Trager reports.

When the US budget for fiscal year 2012 was finalised before Christmas—three months late—science agencies fared relatively well, despite significant cuts to many other government programmes. But this generally positive outcome may just be a happy accident that offers only a breather from the realities of the US economy. The FY2013 budget process, which kicks off in early February, is expected to be rocky. And FY2014 looks even tougher.

When developing their FY2012 budget proposals last year, the House appropriators were working with low subcommittee allocations from budget committee chairman Paul Ryan’s budget resolution. But the Senate appropriators had significantly more money to work with after an agreement to raise the debt ceiling under the Budget Control Act. In the end, during negotiations on the final FY2012 budget, appropriators in the Republican-led House successfully pushed for more money for agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and Senate appropriators won more dollars for the Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy research.

“The chaos in the budget process proved to be fortuitous for science,” says Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society. “If the process had been more regular—if the chambers had been working from a joint budget resolution—the likelihood is that we wouldn’t have seen the higher numbers.”

Overall, science agencies saw a 6.4 per cent increase in basic research funding, says the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Support for basic defence research, development, testing and evaluation was up nearly 9 per cent, and support for the Defense Department University Research Initiatives rose more than 10 per cent.

Another bright spot for science, says Lubell, is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 12 per cent increase in the Scientific and Technical Research and Services budget for its labs and research grants.

Meanwhile, NSF’s budget—which Senate appropriators proposed to cut by 2.4 per cent in September—grew by over 3 per cent. NIH’s budget—which Senate appropriators had also proposed to reduce slightly—ended up fairly unchanged. The DOE’s Office of Science saw its R&D funded at $4.5 billion, an increase of nearly 5 per cent, says the AAAS.

Even the parts of the FY2012 budget that look gloomy, such as NASA—whose R&D funding was slashed by 6.6 per cent—and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality—whose tiny $400 million budget was cut by $3m—are actually sunny for science. At NASA, most of the $650m in R&D cuts come not from science but from the agency’s exploration and space operations. In fact, NASA’s science office saw a $100m, or 3 per cent increase, says AAAS. And AHRQ actually ended up with $16m in new grant funding, a jump of about 45 per cent.

However, the final figures were well below the Obama administration’s original request. “In the big scheme of things, science fared relatively well, but we can hardly say it was a robust year for science funding—the level of increase that was achieved didn’t come close to even keeping up with inflation,” says Bill Leinweber, senior adviser for the research advocacy group ResearchAmerica. “We are barely treading water,” he warns.

The picture looks bleaker for 2013 and 2014. Science agencies and others will see across-the-board cuts of roughly 8 per cent under the sequestration to be triggered in January 2013 because of the congressional supercommittee’s failure to reach a federal debt-reduction agreement [RE 08/12/11, p8]. In addition, the $918 bn, 10-year reductions built into the Budget Control Act don’t really start to kick in until FY2014. “The likely scenario now is for the science budgets to be very much constrained going forward,” Lubell says.

But some suggest that the across-the-board 8 per cent reduction might not happen in 2013, saying Obama has recently softened his previous stance to veto any bill going against this sequestration. In addition, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate is up for re-election in November—lawmakers might not have the intestinal fortitude to make the steep cuts they had threatened. It seems unlikely that either party will want to go into an election proposing deep science cuts.

However, the cuts are certain to restart after the election, and it will be quite difficult for science agencies, especially the largest targets like NIH and NSF, to avoid becoming casualties. The research community, grantees and agencies alike, will need to adjust to a reality where federal budgets are at best held flat—which means that they lose purchasing power—and at worst dramatically cut.

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