U.S. Budget Deal Should Help Shelter Science From Sequester—For a While


U.S. Budget Deal Should Help Shelter Science From Sequester—For a While

Is the sequester history?

A 2-year budget deal announced today by key members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would, if approved, wipe out a major portion of the impending mandatory budget cuts that have struck fear into many government-funded researchers.

President Barack Obama generally welcomed the agreement. "It clears the path for critical investments in things like scientific research, which has the potential to unleash new innovation and new industries," he said in a statement.

Biomedical research advocates offered measured praise. “The budget deal moves the needle in the right direction but not far enough,” said Mary Woolley, head of Research!America, in a statement. “We're gratified medical research and other non-defense discretionary programs will get a modicum of relief from sequestration's bitter pill but it’s not enough to meet the expectations of patients waiting for new treatments and cures.”

"While I am pleased to see the deal includes some relief from sequestration and we strongly support its passage by Congress, it is a small step forward in mending the damage done to medical research supported by NIH [the National Institutes of Health],” said Carrie Wolinetz, a spokesperson for United for Medical Research, a coalition of universities and advocacy groups, in a statement. “The looming threats of low budget caps and resumption of the sequester after 2015 will continue to cast a pall on the medical innovation ecosystem."

The deal "begins to put in place the predictability and certainty in funding the scientific enterprise needs,” said Benjamin Corb, spokesman of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in a statement.

The deal calls for the U.S. government to increase discretionary spending to $1.012 trillion in fiscal year 2014, which began on 1 October, and $1.014 trillion in 2015. (Discretionary spending is set annually by Congress, in contrast to spending on so-called entitlement programs such as Social Security.) The 2014 discretionary number is essentially halfway between a lower total adopted by the Republican-controlled House earlier this year and a higher number supported by the Democratic-led Senate. It is also $45 billion higher than what would have gone into effect in January 2014 as required by the 2011 law that created the sequestration mechanism.

The higher spending is intended, in large part, to ease the pain promised by the sequester. In 2013, the sequester required many agencies, including major research funders such as NIH, to cut their budgets by about 5%, although the National Science Foundation and others were spared somewhat by last-minute moves in Congress.

In 2014, the cuts were supposed to total between $90 billion and $100 billion, roughly split between defense and nondefense programs. Many research advocates—including NIH chief Francis Collins and numerous interest groups—have argued vociferously for ending or at least softening those cuts, predicting that they would cause long-lasting harm to research programs.

Tonight, they appear to have gotten their wish. The agreement “eliminate[s] about $63 billion in across-the-board domestic and military cuts” over the next 2 years, according to The New York Times. The extra money “would be spread evenly between Pentagon and domestic spending, nearly erasing the impact of sequestration on the military.” Domestic programs, including health research funding, could “fare particularly well” under the deal, the Times notes, because other funding moves—such keeping in place cuts to the Medicaid health care program—would give Congress greater flexibility in spending.

Overall, the agreement appears set to wipe out at least one-half of the sequester cuts planned for 2014 and one-quarter of those scheduled for 2015. Further relief could come from new revenue sources established by the plan, such as a new fee on airline tickets. Still, for the time being, planned sequester cuts remain in place in 2016 through 2020. And the deal will still require cutting some spending—and those details still need to be worked out. Tonight’s agreement does not, for instance, establish exactly how much each agency can spend, only the overall totals for broad categories of spending.

In addition, the pact needs to be approved by both houses of Congress, and it is already drawing criticism from both liberal and conservative lawmakers. But the bipartisan group of lawmakers who hammered out the package are predicting passage before the end of the month. And the pact appears to rule out a repeat of the kind of political brinksmanship that caused a partial government shutdown for 16 days in October.

Check back with ScienceInsider for more details on how the deal might affect U.S. science.

*Update, 10 December, 10:30 p.m.: An adding error has been corrected, and reaction from advocates has been added.

*Update, 11 December, 2 p.m.: A quote from The New York Times has been updated to match the current version of their story online and additional comment has been added.