Science Funding and Future Prosperity of the Nation, All On the Line

How are y’all doing? Me, I am scared sh… Let’s say, into a constipative mode. The exact situation that I had worried about last September has finally come to pass. Late on the night of Friday, the 1st of March, the studied intransigence of the Congressional Republicans on fiscal matters bore fruit and President Obama signed the order that put the across-the-board, indiscriminate, $85 billion spending-cuts (a.k.a sequestration, or the Sequester) into grim effect.

And this figure of $85 billion is just for this year, with more than $100 billion designed to be eliminated in each of the nine years thereafter. The spending reduction is to occur in both defense and domestic spending. According to a CBS News report, that translates into an 8% cut in Pentagon funding ($46 billion in spending this year), and that most domestic agencies will have to cut at least 5% from their ledgers. The CBS report also indicated that while Medicare itself won’t suffer cuts (although Republicans are trying their best to change that), doctors who see Medicare patients will see their reimbursements trimmed by 2%.

I am not a finance person, and these percentages don’t make a lot of sense to me. But my fears stem from what has been projected as the effects of the sequester on the common folks. According to figures released by the White House, the sequestration would cut support programs for nearly 1.2 million of disadvantaged students, and threaten the jobs of more than 30,000 teachers and school staff. The CBS report mentioned that many programs for the needy, like home heating assistance and unemployment insurance, will be drastically reduced. And while the lawmakers will not suffer any pay cut, their office budgets will be diminished, leading to possible lay-offs for their employees. Talking about impending hardships, President Obama has said, “… Border Patrol agents, FBI agents, civilians who work for the Defense Department – will see their wages cut and their hours reduced.”

The devastating effect of the domestic spending cuts will undoubtedly be felt state by state. The White House has prepared reports on the state-wise effects of the sequester; there is also an interactive graphic available, summarizing that information. According to these reports, Maryland – my state – is in deep sh… trouble, from which, of course, none of the other states are immune.

Sequester in MD

Graphic courtesy: Addicting Info

Because of sequestration, $1.2 trillion in funding cuts for government agencies will take place over a period of 10 years. For us, this means a loss of approximately $71 million annually in federal funding including a $27 million decrease in federal research grants, a $23 million reduction to our U.S. Family Health Plan, as well as $21 million in Medicare payment cuts for our hospitals and doctors. We additionally are facing the possibility of reduced payments from Maryland Medicaid, a shift in financial risk from payers to providers, and uncertainty related to rate setting by Maryland’s Health Services Cost Review Commission.

This was the message that I received from the leadership of my university, sent out to all employees. Imagine that: an annual reduction amounting to $27 million in federal research grants. My mind hearkened back to the ominous forecast made by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) late last year: “These proposals would shift the burden of deficit reduction onto the middle-class and vulnerable populations and represent the wrong choices for the Nation’s long-term growth and prosperity.” And no wonder! Funding for scientific research, upon which directly or indirectly depend this nation’s future growth and prosperity, is now in jeopardy.

The full gravity and seriousness of the situation as it relates to scientific research has been articulated in the journal Science, in a feature titled “What It Means for Agencies to Be Under the Sequester”. It is an informative, interesting, not to mention downright scary read. Unfortunately, it is also behind a Paywall, so if you cannot access it, please let me know in the comments.

The Science essay does indicate that the effects of the sequester may take weeks or months before most scientists begin to appreciate the impacts. However, given the situation, that is of little comfort in the long-term. What many in the media seem not to have understood is that a major chunk of science funding comes from what is known as discretionary spending, and this is what is at serious risk because of the sequester. As the essay indicates:

More pain may be on the horizon. This week’s cuts are only the first installment of a $1.2 trillion spending reduction to be spread over 10 years. The nightmare for federal science officials is that Congress will apply the lower spending ceilings stipulated by the 2011 law to future annual budgets. Those repeated cuts would hollow out federal support for science, they argue.

Different funding agencies are considering different strategies already. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) expects to cut the annual funding for existing grants. Generally, NIH makes the continued funding of multi-year awards contingent upon the future budgetary allocations of NIH. And with the sequestration in effect, NIH grantee investigators may see their annual budgets trimmed by several percentage points, which would translate to serious amount of money given that annual grants average around $431,000. If the NIH squeezes existing grantees by even 5%, that may mean the loss of two or three salaries, at least. On the other hand, the other funding body, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which typically makes 3-year grants committing all the money upfront, expects to drastically reduce the number of new awards, which would mean that researchers applying for NSF grants will face a much stiffer competition. NSF officials predict a drop of 1000 new awards, or nearly 10%, from 2012 levels. NIH, with a budget four times larger than NSF’s, anticipates making “hundreds fewer” awards, according to the Science essay.

Although, because of the structure of these institutions, NIH and NSF, their employees may not be at risk for being laid off, other federal agencies may not be so fortunate. The Science essay indicates:

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has warned that it plans “the elimination of at least 100 research associates” because of the reduced funding for its core labs. NIST says those cuts will also prevent it from staffing its network of Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers. The directors of the Department of Energy’s 10 science-oriented national labs have a different problem: Funding cuts could prevent them from running at full capacity the x-ray sources and large other facilities that draw scientists from around the world.

Only the myopic and ignorant would fail to appreciate how this country’s scientific prowess and technological innovations are going to be pushed back severely by these funding-reduction measures. According to the Science essay, recently the heads of the funding agencies were asked to furnish letters documenting the expected impact of sequestration on them, at the behest of Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Their responses paint a grim picture; they wrote that less money would mean less research, which in turn will lead to delays in understanding the natural world, treating and curing diseases, and tackling pressing societal problems such as world hunger and clean energy – none of which is difficult to understand. But then, in the recent times, the Republican leadership has not provided much evidence that they are farsighted, or willing to put the nation’s and its citizens’ interests ahead of their own petty, partisan ones. Even now, the House Republican Speaker John Boehner “isn’t sure whether the sequester will damage America’s economy”, and the Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has “characterized the spending cuts mandated under sequestration as ‘modest'”.

Amongst the alarming specifics that the heads of federal funding agencies provided – as their response to combat the sequester effects – were the following: (do read the Science essay in its entirety for the whole grim picture.)

  • US Geological Survey: More than 10% of approximately 3100 stream gauge network to be taken offline. This puts at risk flood forecasts, land use studies, climate change surveillance, and water level monitoring.
  • NSF: Construction of two large national networks of observatories (for monitoring ecological systems and the oceans) to be summarily halted.
  • US Census Bureau: Efforts associated with the 2020 census, including assessment of the impact of the sequester, will cease, and related jobs (almost 600,000 people) would disappear.
  • US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Launch of two key weather forecasting satellites to be delayed.
  • NASA: Awards to scientists desiring to undertake the analysis of data from current missions to be reduced by 5%, further diminishing an already impoverished field.

The Republican policy for achieving long-term financial stability has long been the elimination of social safety net programs, including the Social Security retirement program, as well as the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs for the elderly, disabled and poor. Although these steps have been criticized roundly, Republican leaders and lawmakers seem unable to let go of these ideas which are geared towards preventing comprehensive tax reforms and protecting tax loopholes that many special interest groups enjoy. And indications now are that, in order to reach a compromise on the larger issue, President Obama may concede a cut in Social Security and Medicare.

Therefore, as lawmakers wrangle over a self-inflicted wound on the country’s economy, ordinary people, the middle-class, the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged would continue to suffer, and the long-term prospects of this Nation’s progress and prestige will doubtlessly dwindle. As a foreign-born, non-citizen, guest-worker in the sciences, I am appalled at the insensitivity of the lawmakers, and terrified of what tomorrow might bring.

3 Comments

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally

    March 4, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Very good detailed post, Kausik, thank you. Taking a more fish-eye look at sequestration’s effect, it is saddening that science on a global level is taking a hit here, considering the US’ contributions to research.

    But this mess also illustrates why it’s high time that other nations start really pushing in the R&D department. Progress in countries and regions like China, Brazil and some other South American countries, the Middle East (hopefully), India (hopefully), Australia cannot come fast enough. Depending on one individual has never been a good strategy and now it’s time for science to repose not just on the shoulders of the US but on those of other capable countries too. It will be good for all of us, and for the planet.

  2. Great information, Kausik. I, too, am not an economist. But I find less and less rhetorical, the question, “Where has all the money gone?” Someone(s’) got it.

  3. Kausik Datta

    March 5, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Thank you, Khalil and Lee, for your comments. This is an issue that is giving me sleepless nights. I found an interview of Elias Zarhouni (the former Director of NIH) in the Washington Post in which he opined how the sequester will set back medical science for a generation. What the situation is coming to was well summarized after the interview piece by some commenter (named Patt Reid), who said:

    Oh, well, we can always rely on the R&D done in other countries who actually value healthcare, research, and their citizens.

    Perhaps that would also be countries in which a vocal section of the citizenry is not actively anti-science, anti-education, and anti-sense.

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