Speak Up for Science Funding

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Science  09 Nov 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6108, pp. 722
DOI: 10.1126/science.1232218

The U.S. elections are over, and sitting policy-makers must turn their attention urgently to the “fiscal cliff,” a perfect storm of budget landmines laid by Congress and two administrations that threaten to go into effect in early January. Congress and the president must rapidly make hugely important decisions about the debt limit, the expiration of Bushera tax cuts, and possible draconian across-the-board budget cuts in defense and nondefense accounts known as “sequestration.” Business leaders and other interests are rallying to force action, alarmed that cuts will be directed at them. Those not heard from will probably have the most to lose. It is simply not enough that scientific societies and advocacy organizations speak up. It is essential that every member of the science and engineering community personally convey to policy-makers and the U.S. public the great importance of strong science funding to the future of the country.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the nation's future is at stake and now is the time to be heard. Very likely, the first week after the election will feature both short- and long-term attempts at preventing the havoc that implementation of the fiscal cliff would cause. The alternative scenarios range from deferring the issue to a new Congress and new presidential term through some short-term fix, to enacting the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform's 2010 recommendations for reducing the country's budget deficit through a mix of spending cuts and tax reform. Importantly, sequestration-induced nearly double-digit reductions in the federal R&D annual budget, which has already seen a 10% decrease in constant dollars since 2010, are far from off the table. No one yet knows how individual agencies would handle budget cuts of this magnitude, but, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would lose between $2.4 billion and $5.5 billion, depending on the ultimate formula. The lesser reduction would return NIH funding to, roughly, the budget of 2002; the greater would reduce NIH funding below that of 2001. The National Science Foundation (NSF) would lose between $450 million and $1 billion of its over $6 billion annual research budget. If NSF were to absorb these cuts totally from research grants, it would mean that some 2600 grants would go unfunded next year.*


Some advocates have argued that science and engineering research funding deserves preferential treatment because of its importance to every aspect of modern life. But this argument is true for other areas, as well. There will be more listeners if scientists first acknowledge that tax and entitlement reform must go forward to ensure both new revenues and the elimination of unnecessary, duplicative programs and regulations. Economic growth is the goal shared by all, and the proven centrality of science and engineering to economic growth should be a lead argument. As former NSF Director and Assistant to the President (Clinton) for Science and Technology Neal Lane argued succinctly: “No science; no growth.” Scientists by the thousands must deliver this message during the first week of the lame-duck Congress.

The science community knows well that the United States cannot afford to be cutting science funding—the seed corn for future innovation and economic growth—precisely when its international competitors are substantially increasing their investments in R&D. The science community also knows that such drastic cuts in science funding would drive the promising young scientists who represent the nation's future into other careers, especially because their immediate predecessors already face abysmally low grant-proposal funding rates. But one cannot assume that others know and share these truths; in fact, we must assume that policy-makers are unaware. That's what we have to change through our actions, now.

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