Fiscal cliff: scientists and the next budget fight

The deal struck Tuesday to avert the fiscal cliff has been much discussed in the press. In short, this deal generates significant revenue by increasing tax rates on the wealthy while maintaining low tax rates for more than 99 percent of Americans. This deal did not include significant spending cuts long sought by Republicans.

The issue of sequestration was not solved in the recent fiscal cliff deal. Rather, it was postponed for two months, ensuring another divisive debate over federal spending. An ominous aspect of the postponement is that sequestration is now scheduled to take effect around the same time the U.S. reaches its debt limit. If the debt ceiling is not raised, then the U.S. will default on its debt obligations and almost certainly cause global economic unrest. While President Obama has said he won’t negotiate over paying the nation’s debts, Republicans see the debt ceiling debate as a perfect time to corner Obama on the deep spending cuts the party desires.

What does this mean for scientists? The biggest concern in the scientific community about the fiscal cliff always has been sequestration. For the National Institutes of Health, sequestration means a roughly $2.5 billion budget cut that would potentially come entirely from the extramural grant program. Similar cuts would occur at the National Science Foundation and other federal research funding agencies. The postponement of sequestration means that the fight against budget cuts to our nation’s research programs continues. You can find how these cuts would affect individual researchers here.

Will the debt ceiling debate over the next two months finally end the talk of sequestration? Maybe. It is possible Republicans and Democrats could work out a grand bargain that solves many of the fiscal issues facing our nation. However, seeing as how the two parties have failed to get a grand bargain in previous negotiations, it is also possible that the debt ceiling will be raised at the last possible moment and sequestration, again, will be postponed.

Whatever path these negotiations take, you can always count on the ASBMB Policy Blotter to keep you informed. Stay tuned!

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