Washington DC

The new Democrat-led US Congress convened on 4 January, but the changeover in power from a Republican-dominated Congress has thwarted almost anyone looking for government money. A budget impasse has erased the gains expected by several research agencies, and science advocates have launched an all-out lobbying campaign to win back the increases.

At stake are large boosts proposed for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). President George W. Bush proposed the increases last February, and Congress was supposed to hammer out the final numbers by 1 October 2006, the start of the 2007 fiscal year. But in December it became clear that the Republican Congress would be unable to complete the budget, leaving Democrats with the unsavoury task of finishing the Republican bills.

The new chairs of the committees that dole out the money said last month that they would abandon the budget in favour of a year-long “continuing resolution”, which would keep funding for agencies at the previous year's levels. Now budget officials at science agencies are scrambling for options, which include cutting grants, delaying projects and even temporarily laying off staff. “Science is in a very precarious position,” says Joel Widder, a science lobbyist with the firm Lewis-Burke Associates in Washington DC. “I think a lot of hopes and expectations will have to be put off.”

Power cut? The Tevatron particle accelerator in Illinois, the world's largest, may be suspended. Credit: P. GINTER

Particularly affected would be agencies favoured by President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative, which aims to bolster US innovation (see Nature 439, 644–645; 2006). That includes the energy department's science office, which had been expecting a 15–18% boost in its $3.6-billion budget. Meanwhile, Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York may temporarily shut down its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which was kept open last year only with the aid of a $13-million private donation. At the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, there are plans to shut down the Tevatron, the world's most powerful accelerator, and to lay off all staff without pay for a month, according to director Pier Oddone. And at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, construction of the Linac Coherent Light Source will be deferred for a year, says Keith Hodgson, the lab's acting director.

Science is in a very precarious position. I think a lot of hopes and expectations will have to be put off.

“You sound like you're whining, but the fact is that this comes after year after year of flat budgets,” Hodgson notes. The science office hasn't seen a funding increase in roughly a decade.

The NSF would also lose up to an expected 7.8% boost in its $5.6-billion budget. The agency was hoping to use the funds to increase the number of grants and launch its participation in the International Polar Year, says Jeff Nesbit, the NSF's director of legislative and public affairs. Under flat funding, he estimates that the agency would eliminate around 600 new grants, 10% of the number it was hoping to grant next year. Polar-year activities would also be jeopardized (see 'Shrunken heavyweight undermines polar year'), as would the start of a new petascale computing centre. Plans for the new EarthScope programme of geological monitoring might have to be slowed, and travel has been severely curtailed.