What does the Supercommittee failure mean for the future of scientific progress?

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The levels of support received by any government-funded program are expected to fluctuate in kind with a country's budgetary fortunes, but the history of federally funded science in the United States has been especially strained by the ongoing transformation of the nation's budget.

The recent failure of the congressional super committee (responsible for trimming 1.5 trillion dollars from the U.S. federal budget) has triggered a 1.2-trillion dollar budget-slashing measure that threatens to place the future of scientific research on even rockier terrain. What do the impending budget cuts hold for the future of research, and what impression will they give the rest of the world about the United States' commitment to scientific progress?


We spoke with Michael Lubell, head of public affairs with the American Physical Society, for insights on the potential impact of the budget cuts. According to Lubell, nobody at this stage can be sure what the actual reductions will look like, but when they do occur (starting in 2013), they're likely to be in the neighborhood of 8 percent for scientific programs across the board.

"If reductions occur," explains Lubell, "it's going to be pretty bad."

Federal funding for science research in the United States is drawn from the discretionary portion of the country's budget. According to Lubell, these are the funds that will be up for grabs in the months and years ahead — but there's only so much money to go around. "It'll be a question of who screams loudest, which communities get active, and if the scientists sit back and do nothing, the consequences will be reduction," Lubell says.


Eddy Rubin, the director of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, echoed Lubell's concerns in an interview with io9:

It is not clear at this point just how big the cuts will be. If they are massive, I fear that whole areas of science may be lost. Environmental research, being a politically sensitive topic, has been threatened for targeting. I feel that it is crucial that we don't stop the studies of how climate change will impact the planet and ways to potentially mitigate it.


Just how hard various areas of research and development are hit come 2013 will depend on the status of their current budgets, and their ability to engage in pre-emptive damage control in the months ahead.

"Committees right now have every right to prioritize science," said Lubell. "If they actually increase the science accounts [in the near term future], when the cuts occur in 2013 they'll be reduced from an increased level."


"People need to talk about the importance of [science] and make a clear case. That's where we're heading."

When we asked Lubell about the specific impacts that budgetary cuts could have on scientific research, he explained that one of the most immediate consequences would be a drastic reduction in the number of grants supported by agencies ranging from the NIH to NASA. These reductions are liable be seen as a warning message to aspiring scientists the world over.


"Success rates [on grant applications] would probably fall into the single digits. That's going to be discouraging for younger people trying to establish themselves; it's going to be really tough. The message to students and graduate students will be: if you want to be a scientist, you might want to look at other countries — and that would not be good." He continues:

Ultimately, science is people. That's what most of the money goes towards. If you make a reduction of 8%, or 11% on the defense side, mostly what you're doing is reducing the work force. So if you believe that the future of the country depends on having a science and technology work force that is capable and thriving, [the proposed budget cuts] will of course send it in the opposite direction.

The future of the country is in the hands of the House and Senate appropriators. The case has to be made to them that they need to take the actions to increase the funding for science, so that when these cuts occur, we won't have a straight 8% reduction.

If you want a high-tech work force, if you want science that drives the economy, this is what you need to do. If you don't, the country will suffer. We will not be innovative. We will not be building a better America. And that is what we're looking at.


Top image via Wikimedia Commons