Published online 13 October 2010 | Nature 467, 760-761 (2010) | doi:10.1038/467760a

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US midterm elections: Deficit poses threat to science

Research programmes in the United States seem to be heading for a cliff, no matter who wins in Congress.

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, US scientists have been sitting pretty in the wake of the global economic downturn. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus bill, pumped an extra US$31 billion into science, and President Barack Obama's budget request for fiscal year 2011 included generous increases for several science-funding agencies.

But going into the midterm elections, a different narrative is emerging. Republicans are running on a platform to reduce the $1.4-trillion US deficit, which seems likely to entail freezes or effective cuts for at least some science programmes. If the Democrats retain control of Congress by a thin margin, policy experts say that they are likely to interpret the loss of seats as a call to rein in spending too. "Science is pretty well supported by both sides, but it's a matter of balancing investment with the deficit," says Patrick Clemins, director of the research and development budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

A Republican win would probably spell problems for America COMPETES, a 2007 act of Congress that set the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy's Office of Science on a path to double their funding over ten years. America COMPETES originally passed with bipartisan support, and stimulus funding provided a further boost for research in 2009. But COMPETES expired at the end of September 2010 because Republicans objected to its high funding levels and slowed the passage of its reauthorization. Even if COMPETES passes in the weeks after the November elections and before new members take their seats in January, it may not receive the funding it requires in what is expected to be a tighter federal budget for fiscal year 2012.

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The looming budget shortfall has led to concern about a 'cliff effect', in which projects funded by the stimulus bill find themselves without support when its funds run out, which could occur even if Democrats retain control. Paradoxically, a resounding Republican win might be better for science funding than a small Democratic majority, says Christopher Hill, a science-policy expert at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Republicans are bigger spenders than their rhetoric suggests, he says.

In the past, both parties have consistently supported science funding (see 'Federal funds for research'). A doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget from 1999 to 2003 was initiated during Democratic president Bill Clinton's tenure with the approval of a Republican Congress. From 2001 to 2007, the House Committee on Science and Technology, which drafts legislation authorizing science budgets, was headed by Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate New York Republican and a strong supporter of funding the NSF and the energy department. The next chair was Tennessee Democrat Bart Gordon, who secured bipartisan support for COMPETES but plans to retire after this Congress. If control changes, Ralph Hall, a Texan Republican, is in line to take over. Last spring, Hall pushed for a three-year budget freeze for the agencies targeted for increases by COMPETES.

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The potential arrival of Tea Party-backed candidates in Congress with a focus on reduced government and unfavourable attitudes towards science (see 'State watch: Delaware') is likely to be significant. Under a Republican Congress, Hill says that some symbolic projects such as FutureGen — a carbon capture and storage initiative in Meredosia, Illinois — may be axed. But others, such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy are better protected against major cuts, he says.

Barry Toiv, vice-president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC, is pragmatic about the prospects of working with a Republican Congress. "If the House and/or Senate does turn over, we will need to make a renewed effort to ensure the new leadership understands the value of research investments." 

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  • #60899

    Under Bush the NIH budget doubled but hESC research was restricted to existing lines – he still put far more money into life sciences than Clinton yet because of one issue some people disregard him as anti-science. I think that's typical politics but bad logic.

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