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Uncertain times

Budgetary delays exacerbate dire outlook for US research.

Nearly three months into the across-the-board budgetary cuts known as sequestration, the US Congress seems as petulant and ineffectual as ever. There is no end in sight to the national economic stalemate driven by Senate Democrats, House Republicans and President Barack Obama. Congress has made only a few half-hearted and piecemeal attempts to fix some of the sequestration cuts, such as loosening restrictions on Federal Aviation Administration funds so that air-traffic controllers can get back to work. No such deals have been forthcoming for science agencies or research.

Before sequestration took effect on 1 March, science advocates had warned that the cuts would have dire consequences (see Nature 494, 401–402; 2013). Major agencies such as the National Science Foundation would issue at least 1,000 fewer grants. Workers for federal agencies and at national laboratories would be forced to take unpaid leave, or even be laid off altogether. An entire generation of young scientists would be driven out of the field and into other careers.

Those grim predictions — or at least some of them — are now starting to become reality. It is still too early to tell what the final effects will be, but major agencies are collecting data on how sequestration is affecting their grant recipients. Some are also taking the informal route: National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins, for instance, put out a Twitter request for stories at #NIHSequesterImpact. Tales flooded in of grants cut, delayed or denied altogether, to the point that lab heads are hiring fewer staff and delaying purchasing major equipment or other supplies.

Of course, it is hard to know which effects result from the sequestration and which are caused by general financial belt-tightening. But Washington’s inability to reach a budget deal underlies nearly all the economic uncertainty plaguing US science agencies today. The last time Congress passed a proper budget was for fiscal year 2012, which ended last September. Since then, agencies have been operating on temporary, unsettled numbers, topped by a roughly 5% slash from sequestration. Then Obama was two months late in releasing his proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 (see Nature 496, 277–279; 2013). Even seasoned budget wonks call the current situation the worst in recent memory.

Even seasoned budget wonks call the current situation the worst in recent memory.

As uncertainty swirls around the future, budget sequestration is hitting science agencies now. Some of the earliest and most drastic cutbacks have come in the field of Earth monitoring (see page 419). A small fraction of the 8,000 national streamflow gauges are being shuttered, because the US Geological Survey (USGS) can no longer pay its share of the bills. Surveys of western America’s snowpack are also being slashed, eliminating crucial information about the water supply for many mountain states. All this is happening as wildfire season kicks off and as sequestration thins the ranks of federal firefighting teams. Meanwhile, the Pavlof volcano in Alaska began erupting on 13 May, even as cutbacks at the Alaska Volcano Observatory mean that scheduled maintenance of seismic stations at remote volcanoes in the state is not carried out. Without seismic monitoring at many of these mountains, the USGS is, in essence, blind to some future eruptions.

Federal managers insist that crucial measurements will continue to be made. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to impose at least four days of unpaid leave through the summer. But officials say that mission-crucial operations will be unaffected. That includes forecasting severe storms, such as the tornadoes that swept across much of the nation’s mid-section this week, as well as Atlantic hurricanes for which the season begins on 1 June.

One can only hope that NOAA means it. Weather forecasting is expensive because it demands trained personnel. These are the same people who are being told to take unpaid leave, then do double duty when they return to work. Such incessant cutting can go on for only so long before morale suffers.

Already, programme managers at agencies such as the USGS and NASA are taking near-heroic steps to keep funding flowing to monitoring projects, shuffling money between programmes. But in the process they are mortgaging much of their future, by cutting back on savings for longer-term expenses such as upgraded computer servers or more personnel. Let us hope that Congress relieves the agencies, and soon, by getting its budgetary house in order.

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Uncertain times. Nature 497, 409–410 (2013).

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