Policy Analysis

Budget Control Act Threatens Future Science Funding

December 12, 2011

Science funding may be a target for future budget cuts as a result of recent legislative actions.  In the past, the scientific community has been able to rely on a few congressional champions to provide continued federal support for research and education, but the political and fiscal landscape has changed substantially. Budget constraints will require scientists to weigh in if they want to see sustained federal funding. The ability and efficacy of the scientific community’s speaking out about program cuts proposed earlier this year was clearly evident in November when Congress restored Fiscal Year 2012 funding for NSF, NIST, and NASA Science during final House-Senate negotiations on the appropriations bill covering Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS). But with the federal budget tightening in the coming years, the community will have to step up its efforts if it wants to achieve comparable positive results.

Budget Sequestrations

Potential funding cuts will be triggered a year from now in the form of automatic across-the board reductions – technically called sequestrations – mandated by the 2011 amendments to the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 1985. According to the amended BCA, the recent failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to come to an agreement on a debt reduction plan, will initiate $1.2 trillion in sequestrations over nine years, beginning with Fiscal Year 2013. The effect on science funding is not yet known, since the sequestrations will apply to appropriations bills that have yet to be written.  However, once Congress has acted and the bills have been signed into law next year, sequestrations will automatically reduce defense appropriations by 11% and every account in non-defense appropriations by ~8%, effective January 2, 2013. For example, if appropriators choose to increase the National Science Foundation’s Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account by 2% in the Fiscal Year 2013 CJS bill, their action would result in a 6% decrease in the R&RA account at the start of calendar year 2013.

Budget Caps

In addition to triggering sequestrations, the BCA amendments mandate caps for overall discretionary spending over a ten-year period beginning with Fiscal Year 2012. Appropriators must adhere to those caps in the aggregate, but they may alter individual accounts to reflect their priorities. As a result, Congress has the ability to increase science funding relative to other accounts but it will do so only if lawmakers believe the rationale is compelling.

Looking Ahead

During the next year you will have ample opportunity to contact your representatives in Congress and impress upon them why science funding is important. Doing so through visits, phone calls, and letters will let them know their constituents care about these issues. If enough voices combine together, Congress will hear the message.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.