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Sequestration consternation

Many involved in research in the United States have made grim forecasts about the impact of budget cuts that came into effect this month. But much uncertainty remains.

Sequestration has been on the cards for a while, and US federal research funders have tightened the purse strings accordingly. The University of California, for example, saw its federal research funding fall by 22 per cent, or $320 million, in the third quarter of 2012, compared with the same period the previous year. The number of research awards to the university was down by 23 per cent, and the average award was smaller.

Even so, the cuts that came into effect on 1 March, following the failure of President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress to reach a deal on deficit reduction, have seen funders and universities repeating their dire predictions about lost jobs and vanishing grants.

The headline figure is that all non-defence discretionary programmes, including research agencies, face across-the-board cuts of about 5 per cent for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on 30 September.

The University of Washington in Seattle has said that it could lose up to $100m of the $1.05 billion it receives in federal research funding each year. Laurie Leshin, the dean of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Science, told Public Radio International that sequestration could, at her university alone, lead to 300 fewer PhD students in the next decade.

The National Science Foundation, slated to lose more than $280m, expects to fund about 1,000 fewer research grants than last year. And the National Institutes of Health is expected to lose about $1.6bn this fiscal year compared with the previous year.

NIH director Francis Collins told a media briefing on 25 February that more than 80 per cent of the NIH’s $31bn annual budget goes to grants, with the success rate for applications down from 30 per cent a decade ago to 16 per cent now. “It is not the case that there is fat left,” Collins said.

How much will be cut, though, and where, remains unclear, and depends on decisions made in Congress in the coming weeks.

One uncertainty is how much flexibility Congress will give agencies over where they make cuts. Another complicating factor is a looming budget deadline. Since the fiscal year began on 1 October, research agencies have operated under a continuing resolution, with their budgets frozen at the 2012 level. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress must pass a budget or extend that resolution by 27 March.

On 11 March, the Senate appropriations committee approved a continuing resolution that gives the NIH an extra $71m and the NSF an extra $221m above their funding for the fiscal year 2012. For the NSF, the committee estimates that the increase would support about 7,000 scientists, students and technicians.

The House of Representatives’ continuing resolution, passed on 6 March, contained no extra money for science agencies. The two chambers of Congress are under pressure to agree on a final budget before the Easter recess begins on 22 March.

Some believe sequestration should be embraced. “Households and businesses have made cutbacks,” says Daniel Mitchell, an economist at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It’s time for federal agencies, programmes, and departments to engage in this tiny bit of fiscal discipline.” Researchers’ concerns are “vastly overblown”, he adds.

Findings published in Nature at the end of January, meanwhile, challenge the idea that there is no slack in the NIH budget. A team led by Harold Garner, a bio-informatics professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, used text-mining software to see whether federal research agencies were, contrary to their rules, funding the same or similar projects more than once. The team found several grants that, if true doppelgängers, add up to $70m.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has approached Garner to further review his findings. A staff member says the committee will continue to monitor the issue.

One immediate consequence of sequestration will be stiffer competition for funding. “Universities are going to have to be very strategic in how they approach which grant proposals are submitted to agencies,” says Joanne Carney, who directs the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Science, Technology and Congress. Some universities may also choose to take fewer risks in the research they pursue, Carney predicts. “They’ll maybe not be pushing the envelope as much.”

Observers have also predicted that research institutions will increase efforts to obtain private funding from sources such as industry and foundations.

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