In a little less than three weeks, a federal budget sequestration, which would have severe consequences for agencies that fund scientific research, will take effect unless a deal can be made between Republicans and Democrats. That’s a pretty discomforting sentence to write.
Discussions on the effect of sequestration on science research tend to focus on academia, and rightly so, since it will be the academics that are most directly impacted. But that is just the beginning—a very bad beginning—to the ripple effect that sequestration would have. Private companies that depend on the research industry would also be hit, and those companies are making sure that their concerns are heard.
I spoke recently with Janet Lambert, Vice President of Government Relations for Life Technologies Corporation, a multi-billion dollar company which produces molecular biology tools such as DNA sequencers, PCR machines and cell culture systems. Ms. Lambert, her staff and a coalition of the concerned have been working the Hill, trying to convince lawmakers them that letting severe budget cuts to research-granting agencies like the NIH would be, to use her word, “craziness”.
“The feeling is that they haven’t progressed,” she said about her conversations in Washington. “They feel like the House is running out the clock too far.” She noted optimism in Democrats and pessimism among Republicans about how negotiations are going, despite the general acknowledgement that sequestration is a terrible idea. “There are no defenders [of sequestration] in the land.”
Will it be resolved on time? “The truth is, it’s very hard to tell.” She adds, "There is a lot at stake."
The voice of Science is one in a cacophony of voices that are trying to squelch any congressional desires to sail off the fiscal cliff, and probably not the loudest (that would be the military). But defense of scientific research, particularly biomedical research, should also be one of the most powerful arguments against sequestration. People hate diseases. People love cures. It’ll be tough for a politician to say that they allowed a severe blow to be dealt to research into treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. And a severe blow it would be: an 8% cut in research funding, up to 25% fewer grants awarded in an already highly competitive system, resulting in greater stress for established scientists and the depletion of the young scientist workforce.
And as any Dallas Mavericks fan will tell you, one doesn't maintain a championship-level team by gutting the roster.
The effects of sequestration would not stop at the university level. Many businesses depend on the “phenomenal bioinovation ecosystem” as Ms. Lambert put it, which depends on the federal grant system. She noted that business analysts have already discounted companies with ties to academic research in anticipation of budget cuts. After all, it’s hard to sell sequencers to bankrupt geneticists. going off the cliff will not bring down the private science industry—she’s not worried about that, the industry will be “fine”—but it might force some companies to make difficult decisions as the economic environment shifts.
Even if a deal is made by New Year’s Eve, there are no guarantees of security for science funding agencies going forward. There will be the ‘son of sequestration, and the son of the son of sequestration’”, said Ms. Lambert. There will still be a national debt and a deficit even after a deal is made, and that implies that a long-term climate of fiscal reticence and pressure to cut down on spending will linger. And although she believes that the NIH would fare well in a department-by-department budgetary evaluations, Ms. Lambert didn’t foresee a policy implementation that would grow agencies like the NIH. As a friend told her, in government, “’flat’ is the new ‘up’”.
Companies like Life Technologies have an international reach, and have been able to see shifts in the balance of global research power. The United States, Ms. Lambert claims, is still clearly the worldwide leader in research, but it is no longer lonely at the top. Countries like China and the UK are making research efforts a national priority. While the worldwide pursuit of science "is good for mankind", it isn’t good for U.S. policy makers or the U.S. public, for whom science leadership has become a badge of international honor. Doing damage to the research budget won't help our competitiveness.
But there is yet reason for hope. The year is not yet over. a deal can still happen. Science is still cool (and always has been!) and scientific research still receives broad bipartisan support.
There are ideas out there to strengthen science funding going forward. Ms. Lambert suggested that, for example, the NIH could have a multi-year budget instead of the current year-to-year evaluation. She also suggested that perhaps research funding should be seen in a new light. “There is a lot of interest in infrastructure and investment,” she pointed out, and suggested that a new budgetary division be allocated for just that, so that federal investments are treated differently. Scientific research, of course, is a worthy investment.
The goal, for now, is to “encourage lawmakers to think about the bright spots of the economy”, and to point out the “great lift potential” that many research sectors, such as genomics, have over the long term. She noted that many congressional staffers, especially the newer ones, have greatly benefited from information about how, for example, money for the NIH is distributed to universities all around the country. And there are more ways than one to educate a lawmaker. Life Technologies and their coalition partners have put up ads. They have developed grassroots campaigns that include opportunities for members of their company to choose to write letters to lawmakers, adding to the larger onslaught of mail sent by the scientific community nationwide. I myself just sent out letters this past week through invitations from advocacy wings of the Society for Neuroscience and AAAS.
But again, although Science has a loud and provocative voice, it is only one. And in a negotiation process which, reportedly, involves many “frank and deliberate” conversations between leaders who moments later go to the press and talk about how confused and unreasonable the other guy is, the message of one voice is prone to get lost. Thank you to Life Technologies and every other group out there who are making sure that national support for American research remains as strong as it should be.