Fiscal Cliff Part I: The next big challenge for science

By Christina Pyrgaki, @CPyrgaki

fiscal cliff

For the last 35 years, the University of Lake Superior has published a list of banished words – words in the English language that are deemed overused, misused, or useless. Topping the 2013 version was a term that no American has been able to escape the past few months: fiscal cliff.

While I agree that “fiscal cliff” has been overused, I do not know if it is fair to call it misused or useless. The term paints a clear picture of an entire nation standing at the verge of a cliff, in grave danger of falling off the edge at a single misstep. This analogy is not too far from the reality that the US faces, as our society truly is standing on a financial precipice.

Several articles published over the past year have described our ominous situation, and have attempted to figure out how it all began. My favorite, posted in Forbes Magazine in November of 2012, talks about the Congressional passing of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which dictates the automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending.  But, Congress never really intended for this sequester to go into effect. It was meant more as a threat to coerce opposing parties to cooperate.

But what if we cannot find common ground in this contentious political landscape? What if they must make good on that threat?

Many government programs will feel the strain if we do not avoid the “fiscal cliff,” but one area particularly dear to us here at The Rockefeller University is scientific research funding.

As shown in the graph below, key science funding sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will take a serious hit as a result of sequestration. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the sequestration would reduce the budgets of the NIH by $2.529 billion, the NSF by $586 million, and the Department of Energy Office of Science by $400 million.

AAAS Budget
NIH Director Francis Collins stated that these budget cuts would translate into about 2,300 fewer grants (which is approximately 5% of the new grants awarded by NIH in 2012), and is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sequestration’s actual impact on scientific research. In addition to a reduction in new grant awards, funding levels of non-competing renewals will be lowered.  In essence, the future of federally-funded scientific biomedical research is in jeopardy.

These measures were supposed to go into effect on January 1st, 2013; however, Congress and the White House reached a temporary deal, giving Congress until March 1, 2013 to further debate and negotiate. While some see this postponement as a “pathetic punt,” others see this delay as an opportunity to influence the decisions of the elected officials on which federal funds will be slashed and by how much.

What can we do as citizens in the name of science research?

All Americans, and all the scientists among them should exercise their power as informed citizens and active members of society.

Aside from voting, citizens have the right and the obligation to voice their concerns and push for change when their livelihood is being threatened. When voices unite and amplify, there is a good chance of being heard. When you hire a contractor to redecorate your house, you do not stay out of the process and hope that he or she won’t decide to paint your living room hot pink. You supervise, and when you see hot pink paint, you tell the contractor that you disagree with his choices and you are not willing to live with them. Similarly, citizens should let your elected officials know that they are not willing to live with their questionable decisions, and that they need to do the job for which they were hired: maintain the integrity of our society and protect the individuals that comprise it.

Every citizen and researcher should make a compelling case to their elected officials explaining why science funding should be protected.  Research!America contains invaluable tools and instructions on how to contact (and even meet with) the people who have the power to shape the future of scientific research in this country. We all need to use these tools and make our voices heard, because in contrast to what you might believe, politicians listen to their voters. They have to. They do, after all, work for us!

Stay tuned for Fiscal Cliff, Part II where I will talk about what scientists can do to help protect the financial future of science research.

These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.

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