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Money worries. Researchers rally in Washington, D.C., earlier this year against the budget cuts known as the sequester.

Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story of Sequestration

By: 
Jeffrey Mervis
2013-09-26 14:00
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Jonathan Dordick has seen sequestration, the 5% across-the-board spending cut imposed earlier this year on every federal agency, as both a scientist and a university administrator. But the twin vantage points haven’t helped much in clarifying what the cuts have meant to his lab, his institution, and the U.S. research enterprise. (For more, see today’s Science magazine story.)

Yes, less research is being funded because of the sequester, which went into effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on how to implement a 2011 budget agreement to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade. The 2013 budget of the largest federal research agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is down 5.5%, or $1.7 billion, to $29.15 billion. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) budget shrunk by 2.1%, to $6.88 billion, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science fell by 5%, to $4.63 billion. But those three key agencies, along with universities, national laboratories, and individual scientists, have also proved adept at cushioning the impact of a blow they had long anticipated.

Dordick is a prime example. As a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, and an NIH grantee, he was told in January that he would receive 12.5% less than he had expected in the second year of a 4-year grant to develop a more efficient, high-throughput screening system to measure the impact of thousands of chemicals on adult neural stem cells. NIH routinely makes a 10% cut to ongoing grants when it has to start a new fiscal year without a final budget, but the looming sequestration forced NIH to be even more conservative.

In response to the projected $61,000 cut in his $493,000 award for 2013, Dordick moved one of the two graduate students on the grant to a teaching assistantship for 6 months, and he didn’t replace a postdoc who took a job with industry. He also tapped some money left over from the first year of his NIH award.

In July, Dordick and other NIH grantees got some good news. The agency restored $37,000 after deciding it would trim all ongoing grants by an average of 4.7%. That left Dordick only about $25,000 short of what he had hoped to receive this year, and work on the screening system has continued unabated.

Sequestration has had even less impact on his other job, as RPI’s vice president for research. Despite the fiscal crunch in Washington—from which RPI receives three-quarters of its total research dollars—the university’s overall research expenditures rose by 1% over 2012, to $102 million. That growth continues a steady upward trend in research activity in recent years.

RPI’s ability to withstand the initial shock wave from sequestration hasn’t surprised Dordick. “Rensselaer has invested heavily in new facilities, new faculty, and more Ph.D. students,” he says. “Our growth is due to a conscious decision [a decade ago] to expand our research programs.”

Within Congress, influential legislators are also sending mixed messages about the impact of sequestration. And their views are filtered through a partisan lens. “We have to get our priorities straight. We need to say ‘no’ to the slash and crash of reckless cuts to American biomedical research,” says Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House of Representatives science committee, agrees that “we need to prioritize federal investments in research and development if we want to remain a global leader in innovation.” But he thinks that “the current status of sequestration is a result of Democrat’s inaction.”

With only a few days left in the 2013 fiscal year, federal agencies are still tallying up how they have spent their money this year. And the message varies by agency. An NSF spokesperson says that, “based on an initial review, we’re not seeing any noteworthy changes in the year-to-date numbers from last year.” In contrast, last week NIH Director Francis Collins announced that NIH would make 650 fewer new competitive awards in 2013, a 7% drop from 2012.

Right now, policymakers are engulfed in a bitter battle over funding the government for the 2014 fiscal year that begins on Tuesday. Failure to reach an agreement will mean that federal agencies will shut down most operations on 1 October.

Part of the debate is over whether to allow sequestration to remain in place for a second fiscal year. Should that happen, federal and university officials say, the bag of tricks that they tapped this year to sustain a preeminent research system will be empty, and the country will pay a steep price.

For more on the effects of sequester, see today’s story on Science Careers focusing on whether budget cuts are leading to layoffs.

With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser.

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