The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has joined more than 3000 national, state, and local organizations in warning the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama that automatic budget cuts set for January could have "devastating" effects on research, education, social services, security, and international relations.
The planned cuts threaten federal programs that "support economic growth and strengthen the safety and security of every American in every state and community across the nation," the groups wrote in a 12 July letter to Congress. "We strongly urge a balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further cuts to [non-defense discretionary] programs, which have already done their part to reduce the deficit."
The massive number of organizations represents the potential scope of the budget "sequestration," which would reduce non-defense discretionary spending by approximately 8% across most federal programs starting in January 2013. (Sequestration would reduce defense spending by approximately 7.5% across its affected programs.) The sequestration was included in a 2011 agreement that raised the federal debt ceiling in exchange for a commitment to reduce the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next decade.
The letter's signers come from all 50 states and include veterans groups, church organizations, school districts, universities, research institutes, urban job training centers, hospitals and clinics, and nonprofit art centers.
If the sequestration is allowed to take effect, they wrote in the letter, the impact will be immediate and widespread. "There will be fewer scientific and technological innovations, fewer teachers in classrooms, fewer job opportunities, fewer National Park visitor hours, fewer air traffic controllers and airport screeners, fewer food and drug inspectors, and fewer first responders."
In a 10 July op-ed, Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients said 700,000 young children and mothers would lose nutrition assistance if the sequestration goes into effect. An estimated 100,000 children would lose places in Head Start educational programs, and more than 25,000 teachers and aides would lose their jobs as a result of the budget cuts. A report by Research!America suggests that agencies like the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration would lose "critical funding" if the sequestration cuts occur.
Other experts have suggested that some workers who depend on federal contracts could receive layoff notices as early as October 2012, in anticipation of the sequestration, if lawmakers do not agree on strategies to raise revenue, reduce spending or some combination of those to close a budget gap of up to $1.2 trillion over the next decade to address the deficit.
The sequestration as written could amount to cuts of $5 billion or more to federal research and development investments next year, according to a AAAS analysis.
"Non-defense discretionary spending includes virtually all R&D at agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA," said Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. "This spending has already been cut significantly as a result of the debt ceiling agreement. Adding further cuts to those already enacted would severely impact the national research enterprise.
"Public investments in research, especially basic research, are at the core of economic performance and international competitiveness," Hourihan added, "but these investments have already declined in real dollars over the past decade."
As the letter to Congress notes, the non-defense discretionary budget, including federal R&D, represented only 3.4% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011. Under the recent deficit reduction agreement, this budget will decline even further, to 2.5% of GDP by 2021.
"NDD [non-defense discretionary] programs are not the reason behind our growing debt," the letter states. "In fact, even completely eliminating all NDD programs would still not balance the budget. Yet NDD programs have borne the brunt of deficit reduction efforts."
Even as many experts call for a more balanced approach that prevents further cuts to non-defense spending, some in Congress are attempting to move in the opposite direction. Several proposals—including the budget resolution approved by House Republicans in March—could have even more severe implications for R&D, by shifting the burden of cuts away from defense spending and entirely onto non-defense spending.
According to AAAS estimates, such a move could cut non-defense R&D by up to 27%, or $161 billion, over the next decade. Although the House proposal is unlikely to succeed in the Senate, Hourihan said support for cuts of this magnitude persists in some quarters.
"When we look at these proposals, we're talking about eliminating a quarter of public non-defense research," he said. "We recognize the need to pursue a responsible budget, but we also need to be responsible stewards of our economic future."