Guest Blog by Luke Bouvier, PhD
The day of reckoning is fast approaching as concerns the sweeping federal budget cuts known as “sequestration,” scheduled to go into effect on March 1. Originally slated for January 1, 2013, the cuts were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was enacted as part of that year’s fight over the increase in the federal debt ceiling. In the hope that a long-term budget deal would make the automatic cuts unnecessary, their implementation was postponed by the New Year’s Day deal that averted the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but most observers now agree that there is little appetite for a political compromise that could avoid them once again. On January 24, incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released a memo outlining the history of the budget deals reached over the past two years as well as the current state of affairs. The details are messy, but the consequences for the NIH are clear: a cut of approximately 5.1% to the current year’s budget, or $1.57 billion, which would be all the more severe in that it would have to be squeezed into the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.
In an interview with Politico last month, NIH Director Francis Collins called the impending cuts “a profound and devastating blow” to medical research, adding that “there’s no sort of lever you can pull and all of a sudden everything will be fine” in the face of a cut of that magnitude. Collins noted that over the past ten years, the NIH budget has been essentially flat, which means that inflation has whittled away about 20% of its value. The looming cuts would greatly exacerbate that trend, at a time when cancer research is “just exploding with potential,” Collins said. “We could go faster and faster; … it’s an incredibly exciting science, but it will go slower.”
Nature reported last week that scientists are already cutting back expenditures in anticipation of the cuts. Senior officials at the science agencies are under White House orders not to discuss specific plans for implementing the cuts, but the Office of Management and Budget has directed them to minimize the impact of the cuts on their core missions and to give priority to concerns over life, safety, or health. Nature reports that the cuts to the NIH budget would be spread over all of its 27 institutes and centers, with only its Clinical Center spared in order to avoid putting patients’ lives in danger. Directors would have some discretion in apportioning the cuts, as long as the total adds up to 5.1%. Given the uncertainty, the NIH has been paying only 90% of the promised amounts for previously awarded grants; if the sequester goes into effect, the final 10% of these grants would almost certainly suffer a significant cut, leaving principal investigators with difficult spending decisions to make.
As if sequestration weren’t enough, looming right behind it is another impending budget crisis, as the current fiscal year’s Continuing Resolution expires on March 27. If no budget deal is reached by then, a government shut-down is a real possibility. And following along close behind that deadline is the expiration of the debt ceiling suspension on May 19, which could lead to a US government default on its payment obligations in the absence of congressional action.