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Science agencies prepare for cuts

Scientists already feeling the bite of US budget sequester.

Biophysicist Daniel Kiehart’s lab is in limbo until he hears about a grant renewal. Credit: Serdar Tulu

Daniel Kiehart, a biophysicist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has put off the US$8,000 recharge of the gas laser he uses to probe a key motor protein in Drosophila embryos. In December, he bought his own airline ticket to a meeting in San Francisco, California. And two weeks ago, when his senior postdoc handed in her notice, he did not move to replace her. “I just can’t do that right now,” says Kiehart.

In normal times, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, would have already renewed a grant that Kiehart has held since 1984; his proposal was rated between “excellent” and “outstanding” last summer. Yet these are anything but normal times, and Kiehart is still awaiting a decision.

On 1 March, agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), based in Arlington, Virginia, face an abrupt 5.1% cut in this year’s spending under the ‘sequester’ — a cut that will be all the more painful because it must be done before the US fiscal year ends on 30 September (see ‘US budget woes’). Although Congress might reach a last-minute deal to delay or avoid some of the reductions, agencies are wary of committing themselves to grants that they might not be able to afford, and scientists are starting to feel the sting.

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The agencies are “making very conservative decisions because nobody wants to overspend and be caught”, says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

The agencies will have some flexibility in apportioning the cuts, which amount to $1.57 billion at the NIH and $288 million at the NSF. At the NIH, the 5.1% reduction would be applied to each of the 27 institutes and centres — with some protection for its Clinical Center, the research hospital in Bethesda where cuts could put patients’ lives at stake. Institute directors could cut some programmes more heavily than others, as long as the total reduction equals 5.1% (see ‘Wiggle room’).

Credit: SOURCE: NIH

At the NSF, it is expected that the cuts will be applied to each major funding account. One of these, the research account, includes scientific directorates from geosciences and mathematics to engineering and biological sciences, and comprises $5.7 billion of the agency’s $7-billion budget. Like the NIH institute directors, departing NSF director Subra Suresh or his successor would be able to protect some research programmes from the brunt of the cuts. Since 2010, NSF research budgets have favoured computing and engineering. “I suspect he is going to try to protect his priorities as much as possible,” says Joel Widder, a former NSF deputy director who is now a partner at the Oldaker Group in Washington DC, a lobbying group for universities and research organizations.

Senior officials at the science agencies, under orders from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), will not discuss their plans for the possible cuts. But an OMB memo last month directed each agency to minimize impacts on its core mission, and to anticipate challenges that could raise concerns over life, safety or health. Although some of these are obvious — scientists at the isolated stations of the NSF-funded Antarctic research programme need to be equipped for the winter, for instance — others are less so. “People have not been given sufficient time to do anything but take a meat axe to the portfolio,” notes Garrison.

At the NIH, some of the vulnerabilities are already clear. For example, the agency’s $3.4-billion intramural research programme will be squeezed. Because much of that budget is tied up in the salaries of its more than 18,000 employees (whose jobs are expected to remain secure), other spending, from mouse cages to pipette orders, would have to absorb the losses.

There is another pressure point: some $16 billion of the agency’s $30.7-billion total budget is tied up in multi-year grant commitments. Without significant cuts to these, the rest of the NIH budget would have to be slashed further. Already, the agency is paying instalments on previously awarded grants at only 90% of what was promised — a typical strategy when Congress has not agreed on final budget numbers. But grant recipients normally get the remaining money, or most of it, late in the fiscal year. In the event of a sequester, grant recipients would be highly unlikely to see more than half of the remaining 10% delivered. That could leave principal investigators deliberating between buying lab animals or firing postdocs.

For those seeking new funding or grant renewals, the choices may be even more grim. In a normal February, Ellen Ketterson, an evolutionary ecologist and long-time NSF grant recipient at Indiana University in Bloomington, would be hiring three field assistants and ordering mist nets, traps and colour bands for a census of dark-eyed junco songbirds that she has conducted in Virginia each spring since 1985. Ketterson says that continuity is crucial to understanding how long the birds live, when they migrate and how their breeding dates are affected by climate change.

She applied for an NSF grant last August, and expected to learn of her award in November. But her programme officer told her that the application is on hold, with no chance of funding before the NSF learns what its budget will be. She is approaching former field staff to see whether they can donate their time, and she is applying for emergency bridge funding from the university. “There are others, also waiting,” she says. “Delay has consequences.”

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NSF director to step down 2013-Feb-05

Cuts loom for US science 2012-Jul-24

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Blogpost: Looming cutbacks threaten long-term US research

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White House statement on potential effects of the sequester

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Wadman, M. Science agencies prepare for cuts. Nature 494, 158–159 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/494158a

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