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US budget deal would ease science agencies' pain

Congress readies plan to end mandatory cuts until 2016.

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US Representative Paul Ryan (Republican, Wisconsin) has helped to strike a budget deal that would allow small funding increases for government agencies.

The US Congress has announced that it is close to a deal on government spending that would, for the next two years, eliminate the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The deal offers a respite from the partisan battles over government spending that culminated in October with a 16-day government shutdown, and it would give a budgetary boost to science agencies in 2014, rather than another set of cuts.

The proposal was unveiled yesterday by Democratic and Republican negotiators from the US House of Representatives and the Senate. Sequestration, which trimmed roughly 5% from the US$1.043-trillion federal discretionary budget in 2013, was set to claim another 2% in fiscal year 2014, which began on 1 October. But the latest proposal would increase the government’s discretionary spending by roughly 4.5% this year, to $1.012 trillion. Fiscal year 2015 would see another small boost, to $1.014 trillion. (Discretionary spending includes funding for civilian and military agencies, but not ‘entitlement’ spending for programmes such as Social Security.)

House and Senate leaders hope to approve the plan by 12 December, and president Barack Obama said yesterday that he will sign the measure into law once it is approved.

The developments prompted cautious optimism from science advocates. “This is good news for science agencies,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Washington DC. She hopes that the spending deal will relieve pressure on agencies, some of which, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, reduced the value and duration of grant awards to make ends meet during 2013. Several others, including the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted mandatory unpaid leave for employees. “We are thrilled to see Congress dump most of sequestration,” Zeitzer says.

But Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC, warns that science agencies are not yet out of the woods. Even if Congress approves the overall government spending levels for 2014 and 2015 this week, the House and Senate must approve detailed budgets for each agency before the current stopgap spending law expires on 15 January.

With so few business days before that deadline, Lubell worries that lawmakers will not have time to draw up detailed plans, and will instead propose an across-the-board increase that would give agencies little discretion to start or end programmes.

“We’re living with a little bit less uncertainty, but we’re certainly not at a point where a thriving scientific enterprise needs to be,” Lubell says.

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