Sequestration and the federal budget

Most of the political news coverage that I’ve heard recently has been on the presidential race and what each candidate says about each and every topic, including science. The impending sequestration may have a larger effect on science and science budgets than who gets elected in November if sequestration takes effect in January 2013.

When President Obama signed a stop-gap measure last August to raise the debt-ceiling, the law required Congress to agree on a budget deal that achieves $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by January 2013. If such a bill isn’t passed by January 2, then automatic cuts across defense and discretionary domestic spending will be made. According to a report published by the Office of Management and Budget and as covered by both Science magazine and the Atlantic, the sequestration would mean that all science budgets will see an automatic cut (~8.2%) in funding across the board in January 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit. What does that amount to? A list from the Science article summarizes the amounts:

  • 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.

As the White House report explains, “The specter of harmful across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense programs was intended to drive both sides to compromise. The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented. The Administration strongly believes that sequestration is a bad policy, and that Congress can and should take action to avoid it by passing a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package.”

There are plans to push back the impending sequestration, such as the continuing resolution “Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2013″, H. J. Res. 117. It passed the House on September 13 and now moves to the Senate floor. The resolution allows most federal departments and programs to operate at a 0.612% increase over the FY2012 budget until March 2013. Either way the FY2013 starts October 1, so if a bill isn’t passed by then, programs will have to operate not knowing how much funding they will receive for their projects.

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