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Between a cliff and a hard place

US voters have rejected a Republican platform that advocated swingeing budget cuts, but the prognosis for research funding remains grim.

Many scientists breathed a sigh of relief when President Obama was re-elected on 6 November.

Besides researchers’ generally liberal politics, a Republican victory would have made Paul Ryan vice-president, with the distinct possibility that his budget plan—including an estimated 20 per cent cut for federal research agencies and other non-defence discretionary spending—would become a reality. “We may have dodged a bullet,” says American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s spokesman Ben Corb.

But even though science spending has been spared the fire, it remains in the frying pan. If Obama and Congress cannot agree a deficit-reduction plan by January, and the automatic budget cuts—the much-discussed fiscal cliff—prescribed by last year’s Budget Control Act are triggered, the budget for research agencies will be cut by more than 8 per cent in FY2013 as sequestration measures kick in.

Even if the different arms of government can work out a deal to avoid sequestration, science is unlikely to do well out of it. Research groups say there might be some small increases for a few agencies such as the National Science Foundation, whose budget would rise by more than $220 million (€172m) or nearly 4 per cent under the budget proposal submitted by the House of Representatives. But overall, research agencies will probably face stagnant budgets.

“We are hoping for flat funding, but cuts might be imminent,” says Corb. He and others emphasise that everything in the discretionary budget, from veterans’ health to transport, will be in the firing line for cuts, although the relatively small size of the science budget makes it unlikely to be singled out.

Many prominent House Republicans, including Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, remain keen to slash non-defence discretionary budgets. But the party lost seats in both chambers of Congress, and some pundits suggest that it will have to compromise on a deficit reduction strategy by conceding to President Obama’s calls for raising taxes on those earning upwards of $250,000 a year.

It is possible that such a tax hike could be used to fund research and innovation. Mary Woolley, president and CEO of the lobby group Research!America, suggests that increased revenue raised this way could be earmarked for research, education and infrastructure.

The president alluded to such a strategy during his final debate with Mitt Romney, suggesting that “asking the wealthy to do a little bit more” would raise funds for “things like research and technology that are the key to a 21st-century economy”.

A precedent for this approach comes from California. Voters there passed a ballot proposition on 6 November to benefit the state’s publicly funded schools by temporarily raising sales tax from 7.25 to 7.5 per cent for four years, and by raising state income taxes on those earning at least $250,000 by up to 3 per cent for seven years.

For the University of California alone, the money raised will reportedly avert a $375m budget reduction and avoid a 20 per cent mid-year jump in tuition fees.

National survey results released by the Pew Research Center last month showed that Americans disapprove of sacrificing federal spending on scientific research to reduce the deficit, by a margin of 54 per cent to 38 per cent. However, they feel still more protective towards other areas of the budget: reductions in federal funding for education, college student loans and contributions to Medicare or healthcare had disapproval rates of 75 per cent, 61 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively.

Support for research funding remains one of the few areas on which congressional Democrats and Republicans can agree. In the most recent appropriations cycle, notes Matt Hourihan, who directs the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s R&D budget and policy programme, Congress appeared willing to boost R&D at NSF, NASA’s science directorate, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

But the post-election political landscape looks much the same as its gridlocked predecessor, and the hope of more funding for scientific research or many other areas will evaporate unless Congress and the White House can agree and get the deficit under control.

“If sequestration can be averted, or if the nation can get on a more responsible fiscal path, that in the long-run would certainly be in the best interests of science,” says Hourihan. “If those questions aren’t resolved, then I don’t see a path for more robust investment in science in the near-term.”

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