Sequestration: teetering on the edge

One day until the sequester

Well, here we are. Only one day to go until across-the-board budget cuts eliminate more than 5 percent of the budgets of nearly every federal agency. Two bills will come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate today to arrive at the $85 billion in savings to the federal budget required by law, thereby averting sequestration. The Democrats’ bill would postpone sequestration until 2014 while raising the $85 billion through spending cuts and tax-rate increases. The Republican bill would cancel the sequester but give President Obama the authority to find $85 billion cuts from wherever he deems appropriate. The idea here is that, while Congress would give up a significant amount of power to the president, Obama would be able to make strategic cuts that might lessen the sting of the sequester.

Neither plan is expected to pass, and, even if one or both of them did, it is not clear how the U.S. House would view these measures. So, barring a legislative miracle, sequestration will go into effect. Obama has invited the leaders of both parties in both houses to the White House for a conference Friday. It’s possible that they could hammer out a deal to avert sequestration, but it’s more likely that they will be laying the groundwork for a much larger deal—the fiscal 2013 budget—to be achieved by March 27.

FY13 began in October, but the government has not authorized a budget for it. Instead, Congress instituted a continuing resolution that uses the previous fiscal year’s appropriations. Lawmakers will have the opportunity to rescind some of the cuts made by sequestration during the FY13 budgeting process. In other words, the FY13 appropriations may restore the budgets of various agencies to presequestration levels. This, of course, is only speculation. Congress may not come to a deal anytime soon, thereby leaving the sequestration-reduced budgets in place for the rest of the fiscal year.

The effect of sequestration on science funding

Information is beginning to trickle in about how federal research funding agencies will deal with sequestration. The National Science Foundation released a statement yesterday that the spending reductions caused by sequestration would come almost entirely from a reduction in the issuance of new grants. At the National Institutes of Health, it is a much more complicated matter. The NIH has stated that its general policy will be to cut back on the number of new grants issued as well as reduce the amount paid on grants already awarded, also known as noncompeting grants. However, each institute/center within the NIH will have the flexibility to determine how best to deal with sequestration. Whatever path an I/C chooses, it must act as though the budget allocation it has on March 1 under sequestration will be its allocation for the entire year, while hoping that the March 27 budget deadline brings happier news.

It is unclear what the immediate effects of sequestration will be for individual scientists. A reduction in noncompeting grant funding could force faculty members to lay off grad students, postdocs and technicians due to a lack of funds. Reducing new grant awards will lower paylines to, as yet, unseen levels, making the competition for them even fiercer. These are not new story lines for scientists. The new aspect that sequester brings to this story is that it will cause these hardships to occur across the entire nation at almost the same time. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter to keep up to date on the fight against budget cuts and what you can do to help.

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