Science and the Sequester

President Barack Obama stressed the importance of scientific research in his State of the Union address Wednesday, and plans for a decade-long project to explore the inner-workings of the human brain will soon be underway, but automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1st could put a damper on these scientific endeavors.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over a period of ten years were part of a plan to end the 2011 debt ceiling standoff. Congress has since tried to avert the so-called sequester, but with March fast-approaching, spending cuts may be unavoidable.

It's unclear which agencies would suffer most from the loss of federal funding, but according to Research!America’s Sequestration Report, an estimated $3.6 billion will be cut from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Drastic spending cuts may also curtail the ambitious brain-mapping project Obama described in his speech. According to the New York Times, the project is estimated to cost billions of dollars and will include a collaboration among “federal agencies, private foundations, and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists." The president is expected to include the project in his budget proposal next month.

If it is given appropriate funding, the brain-mapping project could reveal new insights to rival the Human Genome Project, which began in 1990. The new initiative, called the Brain Activity Map, will enable scientists to understand the brain on a level never before achieved and to “develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” according to the New York Times.

Federal Funding, Science, and the Economy

Scientific research is the key to understanding disease, developing new technologies, and fueling economic growth. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."

Many agencies stand behind him. In a statement issued by the American Physical Society, the nation's largest organization of physicists, researchers said that while they understand “the importance of America reaching its debt reduction goal…predictable and sustained federal investments in scientific research and education are needed to grow the economy and promote deficit reduction through increased federal revenues. They are also essential for keeping the U.S. competitive in the face of increased global competition.”

Research!America, the nation's largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance, released a similar statement in their Sequestration Report.

“Sequestration would slash federal investments in critical health, scientific, medical and biological research aimed at discovering treatments, moving safe and effective new medicines to market, and creating the innovations to grow our economy,” wrote Research!America leaders.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stand to suffer one of the largest budgetary blows, with an estimated $2.39 billion in spending cuts on the table. According to Research!America, “that amount of money is equal to nearly half of the entire budget of the National Cancer Institute, which itself is the largest of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers.” In addition, the $538 million in spending cuts for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is equivalent to “nearly 75 percent of NSF’s entire budget for all biological sciences research in 2011.”

Government Projects and Proposals

Along with plans to map the human brain, according to whitehouse.gov, “the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Agriculture are funding $70 million of research for next-generation robotics,” as part of President Obama’s National Robotics Initiative in an “effort to promote a renaissance of American manufacturing through the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.”

According to the National Science Foundation, this initiative is meant to “accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work beside, or cooperatively with, people.” Proposals for the project are due as early as Nov. 14.

As for plans to avert spending cuts in science and education, areas in which federal funding is critical, according to a Huffington Post article published today, “the Democrats propose to generate revenue by plugging some tax loopholes. Those include tax breaks for the oil and natural gas industry and businesses that have sent jobs overseas, and by taxing millionaires at a rate of at least 30 percent.”

However, the sequestration date remains the same, and “it's unclear whether another delay would have any impact on the prospects for a broader budget agreement.”

Take Action!

If you would like to take a stand, several organizations have created petitions urging lawmakers to find an alternative to sequestration, including the National Head Start Association and the Community Action Works! Campaign.

Learn More: