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What Do Federal Spending Cuts Mean for Science and Researchers?

April 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Major science organizations rely heavily on government funding, including top federal programs like the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and NASA. Jeffrey Brown talks to Matt Hourihan of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on how the sequester will impact researchers.
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GWEN IFILL: Now our continuing coverage on the impact of across-the-board federal spending cuts kicking in this spring in Washington and around the nation.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown looks at what it means for science and research.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the world of science, the government is a big player disbursing money for grants and research. With most federal agencies set to see reductions of roughly 5 percent of spending, that will mean cuts for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Energy, NASA, and other key players.

Matt Hourihan has been tracking the immediate and potential impact. He’s director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And welcome to you.

MATT HOURIHAN, American Association for the Advancement of Science: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Generally speaking, how big a deal is this in the world of government — government-supported scientific research?

MATT HOURIHAN: It’s a very big deal. It’s a very big deal.

We’re looking at roughly $9.5 billion dollars worth of R&D cuts this year as a result of sequestration. It’s about — those are cuts adding up to almost 7 percent. These are the largest cuts we have an actually seen in a single year in about 40 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those are big numbers. Explain to us how the funding works, and maybe through a specific example or two.

MATT HOURIHAN: Sure. Yes.

Well, there are a number of different agencies that have large science portfolios. So, each one of those agencies of course receives its funding from Congress every year. And there are a number of competitive grant programs and other mechanisms by which the federal government provides R&D funding to researchers at universities and elsewhere, and, again, generally through a competitive grant process and other mechanisms.

And sequestration essentially lops off about almost 7 percent of that funding that’s available. So, you know, rather than the $140 billion dollars typical of federal R&D in recent years, we’re going see more like $130 billion dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Going to see more. Are we seeing — are they feeling it already? Are they taking action already?

MATT HOURIHAN: Some are. Some are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MATT HOURIHAN: For instance, we know NIH, National Institutes of Health, has …

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is a huge player, right? We’re talking a lot of money.

MATT HOURIHAN: Huge, huge player, yes. It’s the largest non-defense funder of federal R&D in government, in life sciences specifically.

We know that they have — they have said they are going to reduce funding for continuing grants by about 10 percent. That’s going to continue. And what that means is that researchers at universities — and NIH primarily funds university research — researchers at universities are going to have to change their plans when it comes to their own research projects.

We’re likely going to see fewer opportunities for postdocs and graduate assistants. So that’s kind of — NIH is certainly the big player. But there are many others as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does NIH control, make those decisions about where the money is going to go or not going to go?

MATT HOURIHAN: Yes.

NIH has a competitive peer review process. So a number of experts look at each proposal and rate them based on scientific merit. And so it does come down to NIH how many grants are going to be funded, what kinds of grants, what subject areas. What’s not up to them is the amount of funding they have to distribute. That comes out of the Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the argument out there — and we have heard it on the program many times, of course — is that spending is out of control, that everybody has to take a cut, has to tighten their belt, this area as well as many other areas across the board in government. What’s the response been to that in the scientific community?

MATT HOURIHAN: There’s a couple responses.

For one thing, in the past few years, federal R&D has already declined by about 10 percent. We peaked at about $155 billion dollars in 2010. We’re down about — before sequestration, we were down about 10 percent from that high water mark. So we have already seen quite a bit of belt tightening on the part of federal science agencies and research institutions who are trying to plan their own project trajectories.

So we’re kind of at a point now where there isn’t a whole lot of fat left — a lot of fat left to cut. And we’re cutting past the fat into the muscle. The other thing I would mention is that sequestration only actually covers about one-third of the federal budget. Two-thirds of the federal budget, which is what’s known as mandatory spending, entitlements, things along those lines, for the most part doesn’t get touched by sequestration.

Yet, that part of the budget is what’s actually driving deficit growth.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what — would privately funded research not step into the breach at least in some cases of research?

MATT HOURIHAN: Probably not, perhaps to some extent. And there is a lot of talk in the university community about better partnering with private industry to help fund research.

The problem with that, though, is that private R&D is very different from public R&D. Private R&D, industrial R&D tends to be much more focused on product development. It’s less risky. It’s short-term. It’s geared towards realizing returns in the near-term, whereas public R&D is much more focused on the kinds of basic and applied research projects that are much more longer-term in nature, high-risk, and, frankly, too risky for the private sector.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you very, very briefly, is the research community gearing up to fight in this in some sense, or they have giving into it and they’re preparing for ways to deal with it?

MATT HOURIHAN: Well, a little bit of both.

We have got to obviously prepare. There are a lot of, again, research institutions that are changing their plans. There are a number of universities that are — we know are scaling back their admissions, given the specter of reduced funding.

At the same time, we do believe that what’s needed is a more balanced approach to deficit reduction. And that’s been the big problem so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

MATT HOURIHAN: So …

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Matt Hourihan, thank you very much.

MATT HOURIHAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s Science Wednesday online. Read about the impact of cuts on breast cancer experiments and research on rare diseases.