US scientists in budget limbo

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Researchers face anxious wait as negotiations continue in Congress over 2011 budget.

The US Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown last week by passing a continuing resolution to fund federal activities until 18 March. But the two-week reprieve is prolonging scientists' anxiety over the final 2011 budget that may emerge from negotiations between the Republican-majority House and the Democrat-majority Senate. The delay is also raising fears about how drastic the cuts to science might be.

"It's a time of great uncertainty and the [scientific] community is very concerned," says John Marburger, vice-president for research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At his university, researchers continue to put in proposals for federal funding, but they worry that a tighter budget will reduce success rates. Marburger, who was science adviser to former president George W. Bush, has spoken out against the cuts proposed by House Republicans. Postdocs and graduate students, who, he estimates, make up 80% of researchers supported by federal grants, will be hit hardest. "It will put people out on the streets."

“It will put people out on the streets. , ”

The latest continuing resolution cuts US$4 billion from federal budgets, although it largely spares science. And if a 2011 budget is eventually agreed, it is unlikely to contain the full $61 billion in cuts passed by the House on 19 February, which are not expected to pass the Senate (see ). But House Republicans have said that these proposals will form the basis for future negotiations. Judging by an alternative bill put forward by Senate Democrats on 4 March, the final budget will undoubtedly be lower than 2010 levels.

The uncertainty can be paralysing, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland. "The longer the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is under a continuing resolution, the more people may have questions about their grants," she says. The latest continuing resolution "just kicks the can down the road". Neurobiologist Darcy Kelley of Columbia University in New York agrees that the mere threat of cuts may be enough to hamper scientists' careers. "With funding levels certain to drop quite drastically, I think people would be even more cautious about hiring somebody new in the lab," she says.

If Congress can't reach agreement in the next two weeks, it will again risk a government shutdown. William Talman, president of FASEB and a neuroscientist at both the University of Iowa and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City, vividly remembers the last government shutdown that began in December 1995. As a physician, Talman was considered to be 'essential personnel' and was funded to care for patients. But his research — a study of neural regulation of blood pressure in rats, funded by the NIH — came to a grinding halt, because his lab was then located in the government-funded Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "In the labs there was no engineering support, no mechanical support, nothing considered non-essential," he says. "Essentially the labs were in lockdown."

Another temporary funding measure could avert that outcome, but would simply prolong the uncertainty. At the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, a temporary shutdown to upgrade the particle accelerator is scheduled for this year. Robert McKeown, the facility's deputy director for science, had been planning to hire extra people to work on the upgrade, to keep the project on track. But "if the funding situation continues two weeks at a time, I'm afraid we won't be able to make decisions to hire people".

The delay to a finalized 2011 budget also means that any cuts will feel more dramatic when they come. A proposed 18% cut to the Department of Energy's Office of Science 2011 budget would require a cut of 30% over the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. At the Thomas Jefferson facility, that would mean the suspension of the accelerator upgrade, McKeown says, and lay-offs for 300 of the roughly 800 staff members working on the site.

Astronomer Scott Tremaine of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey — who advised on the National Academy of Sciences' decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics priorities in 2010 — says that the uncertainty highlights a major problem of the US system. Budgets are set year-to-year — or, at the moment, fortnight-to-fortnight — through congressional negotiations, so long-term, international collaborations are difficult to plan, and assumptions about future budgets are liable to be wrong. For example, the decadal survey worked with figures from NASA projecting a flat budget over the coming decade, and with figures from the National Science Foundation that assumed a doubling of funds relative to a 2007 baseline. Now, says Tremaine, "that is looking unrealistic".

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Additional reporting by Meredith Wadman.

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Samuel Reich, E. US scientists in budget limbo. Nature 471, 144–145 (2011) doi:10.1038/471144a

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