Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why is sequestration bad?

Credit: Washington Post, altered by Chemjobber
So, as promised, the second part on the "fiscal cliff." Apart from the big tax increases that were planned because of the fiscal cliff, there are also large budget cuts planned. What's undesired for both parties in Congress is the targets of the cuts and the means by which they will be applied. From the Washington Post:
Legislators don’t have any discretion with the across-the-board cuts: They are intended to hit all affected programs equally, though the cuts to individual areas will range from 7.6 percent to 9.6 percent (and 2 percent to Medicare providers). The indiscriminate pain is meant to pressure legislators into making a budget deal to avoid the cuts.
Naturally, the science funding agencies will be hit because of this. From C&EN's article on the issue:
For example, the National Institutes of Health, part of the Department of Health & Human Services, faces a total of $11.3 billion in cuts over the first five years of sequestration. Elsewhere, the Environmental Protection Agency could lose $213 million and the Department of Energy could be out $4.6 billion. 
For example, the National Science Foundation’s average annual budget over the first five years is $5.6 billion, assuming congressional appropriators hold all discretionary accounts flat to mirror the overall cap set by the law. Each year of this period, it would lose an average of $421 million to deficit reduction, for a total five-year loss of $2.1 billion, according to AAAS. 
...Sequestration would make that situation worse, says Steven Fluharty, senior vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania. The university received $900 million in R&D awards in 2012, 80% of which came from the federal government. He estimates that sequestration could cost the university $50 million to $60 million per year in research funding and more than 1,100 jobs.
But what is immediately relevant to me is that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and their programs will be affected. I know that there are many who think that this might be a blessing in disguise, but I don't think that's the case -- subjecting all federally-funded science to more-or-less arbitrary cuts (and basically subjecting academic science to funding decimation) does not seem to be wise.

I think the case could be made for altering federal funding of R&D away from its human-health-first-and-foremost/keep-Granny-alive priority to something that focused more on the basic and less on the translational, and more on the long-term than the short-term. But that's an argument for another time. Sequestration is big and random (as opposed to big and prioritized), and therefore undesired. The House of Representatives and the President should come to an agreement and sooner rather than later.*

*I know that's a lame conclusion, but I do not love politics on this blog. The rest of the internet is better for that.

5 comments:

  1. "I know that there are many who think that this might be a blessing in disguise, "

    I think this. Less federally funded research, leads to slowing down of record high levels of students entering a field which is at one of its lowest points. Maybe if the spigot of disposable chemists gets turned down, there will be less heartache for everyone in the field.

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  2. There's certainly a need to deal with the labor issues that science is facing (too many grad students, not enough permanent positions), but sequestration is a sledgehammer where a scalpel is a better tool. Or at least some forceps. Anyways, I don't think any of the science funding agencies are excited about ~10% cuts, especially when they have no discretion on how those cuts are spread.

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  3. I'd rather have indiscriminate spending cuts that actually happen than promised future targeted cuts that keep getting kicked down the road!

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  4. It's more than just the granting agencies like NSF and NIH that will be hit. Federal labs will face cutbacks as well as some agencies such as Defense (think materials science), DOE, FDA and others.

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  5. The AAAS has a nice break down of the effect of sequestration on research funding here: http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/fy2013/SeqBrief.pdf
    As to people thinking this might be a blessing in disguise, that's really stretching the search for a silver-lining. In addition to presumably curbing the productions of PhD, the cut in funding will discourage any experimentation with changing how funding is allocated. Think of the ACS report where they suggest changing grad student funding from research grants to more individual grants. Where will departments try and get funding to help broaden students' training in the midst of cuts like this?
    And to the person who would rather have indiscriminate cuts now instead of promised targeted cuts that never happen ask yourself why that is? Additionally if there was ever a time to deficit spend it would be now. The yield on some government bonds is negative right now. People are paying the government to hold on to their money.

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