Sequestration Would Cut U.S. Science Budgets By 8.2%, White House Estimates

Bottom line. The White House says automatic budgets cuts would undermine government research programs.

The White House

U.S. government science funding programs would see their budgets cut by 8.2% in 2013 unless Congress agrees on a plan to trim budget deficits by the start of the new year, concludes an analysis released today by the White House. The nearly 400-page report details how the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration," which are scheduled to take effect on 2 January 2013, would affect some 1200 government programs, including those that fund military and civilian research.

"The report leaves no question that sequestration would be deeply destructive," a senior Administration official told reporters in a conference call this afternoon. "The Administration does not support [these] indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts."

  • At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), authorized spending would drop by more than $2.5 billion, to about $28.3 billion, according to the report.
  • The National Science Foundation would see a $586 million cut to its overall budget authority, which currently is $7.14 billion.
  • A $400 million reduction would reduce the budget of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science to about $4.5 billion.
  • NASA's science programs would drop by $417 million to about $4.7 billion, and its Exploration account would fall by $309 million to about $3.5 billion.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency's science and technology account would see a $65 million cut to about $730 million.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research, operations, and facilities account would drop $257 million to about $2.9 billion.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey would get an $88 million cut to about $1 billion.
  • The cuts would be somewhat deeper—9.4%—for defense research programs.

Those sobering numbers are the result of a political deal reached in 2011 that enabled Congress to increase the U.S. government's ability to borrow money. As part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans and Democrats agreed to impose automatic, across-the-board cuts in both defense and civilian programs unless Congress agreed on how to substantially reduce the federal debt over the next decade. The automatic sequestration was included as an incentive for lawmakers to prevent Congress from falling off what's been dubbed the "fiscal cliff," and complete an agreement by the end of 2012. But early efforts to reach a deal collapsed, and in July Congress required the Obama Administration to report on how the cuts might affect government programs. Today's report was actually due on 7 September, but Administration officials said it took time to fully crunch the numbers.

"The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented," the report from the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) notes. "The Administration strongly believes that sequestration is bad policy, and that Congress can and should take action to avoid it by passing a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package."

That's a view shared by many science advocacy groups, who have implored lawmakers to avoid the automatic cuts, which some say have cast "a pall" over numerous research efforts.

Today's report only made the gloom deeper. "Today's OMB report confirms the worst," Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents major research campuses, said in a statement. "A budget sequester in January would have a terrible short- and long-term impact on the nation's investments in scientific research and education, investments that are essential for long-term economic growth and prosperity."

In another statement, a coalition called United for Medical Research said: "OMB's report illustrates an even bleaker picture" than one painted by their own analysis of a 7.8% sequestration cut to NIH's budget. An 8.2% cut, the group said, "following a decade of flat funding for NIH, will devastate the biomedical research enterprise. We urge Congress to do what is best for our nation's economy and the health of its citizens and defend the NIH from sequestration."

*5:16 p.m., 14 September: This story has been updated to include reactions from organizations that advocate for federal funding of research.

*Correction 1:49 p.m., 17 September: The National Science Foundation would see a $586 million cut to its overall budget authority, not $551 million, as was originally reported. The foundation's total budget authority was also corrected. It is currently $7.14 billion.