Looking ahead: Is sequestration here to stay?

In 2011, the Budget Control Act established caps for discretionary spending by the federal government through 2021. This codified the maximum amount the government could spend on the discretionary portion of the budget, which includes programs such as science funding, defense, and infrastructure. Further, if federal spending exceeds that year’s BCA-established cap, then sequestration, or across-the-board spending cuts, would be used to bring the budget under the cap.

In March 2013, Congress agreed to spending levels that were above the BCA cap for fiscal 2013. Sequestration then went into effect, cutting the budget of nearly every federal agency by roughly the same percentage in order to comply with the BCA. As a result, the National Institutes of Health’s budget was cut by over five percent, resulting in a loss of 700 new grants and fewer patients admitted to the NIH Clinical Center. At the National Science Foundation, 1,000 grants were forecast to be cut by sequestration. However, NSF was given an increase to it’s budget which slightly softened the cuts from sequestration. Nevertheless, several hundred grants were not funded by the agency in FY13.

But what is the outlook going forward? Under the deal struck to end the government shutdown, Congress must come up with a plan to fund the government by Jan. 15. If Congress cannot agree to a spending plan that falls at or under the BCA FY14 spending cap, then sequestration will again be applied. Furthermore, without a deal that addresses the drivers of our federal debt and deficit, federal funding for scientific research will not increase.

However, some recent events suggest the fight against sequestration may be gaining ground.

  1. Numerous stories have been published since March chronicling the effects of sequestration on the scientific community. This includes ASBMB’s Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity report based on a survey of 3,700 scientists from across the nation relating the stories and effects of cuts to federal funding for research. Members of Congress pay attention to stories that affect their constituents.
  2. Many Congressional appropriators feel sequestration unnecessarily ties their hands with regard to making decisions on federal spending. Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ken., chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, said on the House floor, “The House has made its choice: sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”
  3. The Obama administration continues to make a push for overturning sequestration. Yesterday, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew told the Center for American Progress, ”We need to replace the harmful, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration with commonsense measures that rein in spending.”

So, is sequestration here to stay? Stories of the effects on science research of budget cuts and sequestration, pushback from influential members of Congress, and pressure from the administration are coming together at the right time that something may get done with regard to overturning sequestration. While no one can accurately predict how federal budget debates will play out, there are reasons for optimism.

What can you do? First, you can send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. It will take you only a couple of clicks and the letter will spread information about the importance of scientific research throughout your community. Second, follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter to stay up to date on science policy information and to take part in our advocacy campaigns.

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