APS News

Funding Uncertainty Plagues Science as Sequestration Cuts Still Threaten

By Michael Lucibella

The eleventh hour decision by Congress to postpone across-the-board cuts to spending (the so-called “fiscal cliff”) has done little to settle uncertainty surrounding the future of federally supported scientific research. Experts expect the total amount of federal dollars devoted to research to decline in the coming year, but it is unclear by how much, making it difficult for scientists to plan for the future.

On January 1st the House and Senate agreed to maintain most tax rates at their current levels and delay the onset of imminent “sequestration” spending cuts until March. Had sequestration gone into effect, federal agencies would have seen an 8% cut to non-defense spending, and an 11% cut to defense spending. The major source of funding for fundamental science is the federal government, administered primarily by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA and the National Institutes of Health, as well as the Departments of Defense and Commerce.

How lawmakers will ultimately resolve the impasse is unclear. Republicans have been pushing for spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit, and it is likely that there will be some form of spending cuts, but it is unclear what might be cut and by how much.

“Both parties agree that they don’t want to see these [sequestration] cuts move forward,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s hard to envision what that deal might look like and what the actual impacts on science funding will be.”

The looming cuts stem from a political fight over the national deficit and the federal debt ceiling in 2011. Concerns about the growing national debt prompted the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which empowered a Congressionally appointed “Super Committee” to come up with a deficit reduction plan, or else face serious across-the-board budget cuts to every part of the federal government. The Super Committee failed to reach an accord, setting the US on a course toward sequestration.

Few observers expect the deep sequestration cuts will come to pass, but any solution would require accord between the two parties. Congress can overturn their own law, but getting the two parties to agree to any kind of compromise budget has been intractable thus far.

Michael Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs, worries that this deep partisan split will continue or possibly even worsen. Recent redistricting might have made the House more polarized than before the election. Every ten years voting districts are redrawn following the census, and lawmakers often try to influence how they’re drawn, by grouping together their constituencies.

“If anything the House probably tilts a little further to the right than it did before,” Lubell said. “If you’re a Republican and you’re sitting in one of those districts, you’re not afraid of being attacked by someone to the left of you, you’re afraid of being attacked from the right.”

Conservative Republicans have led the charge to reduce federal spending overall, and Lubell says that with a more conservative House, “It’s going to be even dicier to achieve anything on reductions.”

The agreement reached to delay cuts until March did contain a few provisions beneficial to scientific research. It extended the federal R & D Tax Credit, which has been in place since 1981, and included tax credits towards development of wind power as well.

If sequestration sets in, all programs and line items across the board are supposed to be reduced, though it is also possible that lawmakers will seek to safeguard some favorite programs. In the more likely scenario where Congress and the White House come to some kind of agreement over smaller cuts, it’s possible that science funding might fare better than average.

“In recent years, there are a few areas that have done pretty well,” Hourihan said, highlighting the DOE’s Office of Science and the NSF. “My guess is there probably is an interest in preserving DOE science funding ahead of other areas.”

The Obama administration has defended research funding, mostly sparing science from cuts that have befallen other programs. Lubell said he is hopeful that funding for science will continue to escape the axe.

“Science is a good story to tell,” Lubell said. “It really does have a great deal to do with economic development.”

Experts worry that should significant cuts materialize, the Department of Energy’s Offices of Fusion Science and especially Nuclear Physics (NP) could be in the most trouble. The latter has already been facing a funding crunch.

In 2007, the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee put together a long-range plan under the assumption that budgets would continue to increase as they had for the DOE’s Office of Science in the previous years. Instead, the agency’s budget remained flat while Jefferson Lab’s Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility received an upgrade and while Michigan State University began using federal dollars to move towards construction of its Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. Combined with the continued operation of Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, these programs have put NP in a bind.

“Not everything is going to fit,” said Robert Tribble, a physicst at Texas A&M University who is heading a commission to make budget recommendations to the Department of Energy.

“The charge was to provide a strategy to implement the 2007 long-range plan recommendations under two budget scenarios,” Tribble explained. The first scenario allowed for a slight increase in the budget, while the second assumed that the budget remains “flat flat,” meaning that it’s the same dollar amount as the previous year, which, because of inflation, somewhat reduces its buying power. “It’s pretty clear that it is not possible to keep everything going under flat flat,” Tribble said.

The committee is not contemplating scenarios involving either modest budget cuts or the more drastic cuts that would happen under sequestration. “The notion of increases in the next two years, on which the planning for DOE facilities was based, is unrealistic. Those increases are not going to materialize,” Lubell said.

The committee expects to submit its recommendations by the end of January, after APS News goes to press, and could not discuss any specific recommendations until then.

Because of the uncertainty over future budgets, long range planning has been difficult for the projects that will likely be most affected. News reports have indicated that RHIC might be facing significant cuts, or might even be shut down. However nothing is official, and RHIC’s recent upgrades have boosted its science output significantly.

“The budget situation is so unresolved at the moment, it’s not clear it makes the most sense to come up with contingency plans now,” said Berndt Mueller, Brookhaven’s new Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear and Particle Physics. “We would have to see how it is distributed across the various sub-programs in the Office of Science.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella