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The Dirtiest Word in Science

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budget cuts, illustration


"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked. For the series of automatic spending cuts, called the "sequester," that go into effect in January 2013, quite a lot actually — and much of it troubling for science funding.

Last year, the sequester was born out of negotiations between U.S. lawmakers who wanted spending cuts and those who wanted to raise the debt ceiling for further borrowing. The sequester was a backup measure to ensure automatic cuts would happen if Congress couldn't agree on spending reductions. Congress didn't find consensus, and the sequester is now on track to start January 2, 2013. It will cut $110 billion the first year, and $1.2 trillion total in the next decade.

If that happens, science research and development funding could be one of the big losers. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in tandem with 3,000 other national, state, and local organizations, sent a letter of condemnation to lawmakers protesting the cuts. The letter warned that the cuts could have a "devastating" effect on many areas of federal spending, including money used on scientific research and development.

The sequester looms over the science budgets on either side of the race for the White House. President Obama released a fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. His opponent, Mitt Romney, has not released a detailed budget plan, but has offered limited endorsements of the budget drafted by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Both the 2013 budget and Ryan's budget propose some serious cuts that will affect federal science agencies.

Many of the sequester cuts the AAAS is angry about fall under the category of "non-defense discretionary spending." Matt Hourihan, director of the organization's R&D Budget and Policy Program,  said in a statement, "Non-defense discretionary spending includes virtually all R&D at agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA. This spending has already been cut significantly as a result of the debt ceiling agreement. Adding further cuts to those already enacted would severely impact the national research enterprise."

According to a budget analysis conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, Ryan's budget would do just that. His cuts to non-defense discretionary spending would total $830 billion over 10 years — more than twice the "devastating" cuts the AAAS opposes. However, Mitt Romney has endorsed more investment in basic science research, largely to find new energy solutions. Many are confused how that aim would coexist with his running mate's budget.

As Mary Woolley, president of science advocacy group Research!America told Nature in August, "We are glad that Congressman Ryan and Governor Romney have acknowledged the importance of funding basic research as a core government function, but we are extremely concerned that Ryan's budget appears to reflect the opposite."

President Obama's budget also proposes some deep cuts. According to Nature, the budget of the National Institute of Health will stay flat, while the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would see cuts of about $106 million and $223 million, respectively, compared to 2012's enacted budget. NASA's science budget is also cut in the Obama budget by about $163 million. Those numbers could change depending on the final budget agreement reached.

However, the sequester has the final say: If both parties can't find an alternative, Nature projects that budgets for NASA and the CDC would see cuts over 10%. The organizations mentioned about would also see more dramatic cuts.

So, what's in a name? When it comes to the "sequester," lots — but not much that's good for science.


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