The state of federal research funding in the US remains tenuous at best. Late Tuesday night, the US House of Representatives passed HR 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which had been delivered to the House from the Senate earlier that day. Included among the many provisions in this bill, which now will go to the President to sign, is a two-month delay in the onset of the sequester. As anyone who has paid attention to current news and events is aware, the sequester was a sledgehammer approach implemented by the Congress and the President designed to be so painful that it would ensure that they would work diligently to come up with an consensus approach to reducing spending and reigning in the federal debt to avoid it ever coming into force. The sequester mandates significant across-the-board cuts in most federal programs including the military and entitlements. Major research programs such as those of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and others will experience 8.2% budget cuts, dramatically affecting research programs funded by these agencies. More information on the anticipated impact of the sequester on research is available at ScienceWorksForUS.org.
Clearly, avoiding the sequester for today is good news. However, the need for Congress and the President to achieve a consensus that will actually resolve the sequester is merely postponed. And virtually the entire Federal government is working under a 6-month continuing resolution approved in September, 2012, which will end on March 27, 2013. Astute readers will notice the close proximity of the new sequester deadline and the end of the continuing resolution. Adding to these to create a perfect storm – the US debt limit will be reached at about this same time, according to Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner (PDF).
So, while we can all breath a brief sigh of relief today, the status of research funding in the US remains precarious until these major issues are resolved finally. Hopefully our elected leadership in the new Congress will find the collective will to come to consensus on an approach that, among other important factors, also maintains support for fundamental research.