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UPDATE: Budget Deal Spared Science Deeper Cuts

This article has been updated with additional comments from an AAMC official.

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – While the major scientific and research agencies in the US are facing some cuts under the budget agreement reached by Congressional leaders and the White House late last week, those cuts could have been much worse, according to policy experts.

Last week's budget deal, which proposed nearly $39 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year, includes slashing funding at several of the major science-funding agencies, including a reduction of $260 million at NIH, or around 0.8 percent compared to its 2010 budget. While some will be unhappy with the cuts, others may be breathing a sigh of relief, as an earlier bill passed by the House of Representatives would have cut the NIH budget by $1.6 billion.

Similarly, the Department of Energy's Office of Science will receive a cut of $20 million compared to 2010, but the House version (H.R. 1) would have lowered it by $866 million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the final bill took a cut of $730 million, while H.R. 1 would have reduced it by another $681 million.

Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GenomeWeb Daily News yesterday that the reaction to the deal among some in the research community was that it could have been worse.

"All things considered, this was not a bad outcome," she said, explaining that the $1.6 billion in cuts from H.R.1 that was on the table first would have been "absolutely devastating."

"Given the overall budget climate and political climate, this is relatively good news. It's not great news, but it could have been much worse," David Moore, senior associate VP for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges told GWDN today.

However, Moore said, the "longer-term discussion about how to deal with the deficit does appear that it will lock in spending plans for a long time," which could mean a budget freeze at pre-2008 funding levels, as has been called for in a House Republican proposal for 2012.

"The research community is concerned about what this is going to mean long-term – essentially another year of flat budgets for NIH," Zeitzer said, describing the reaction as a muted sigh of relief. "The most harmful impact [of a $1.6 billion cut to NIH] would have been on people applying for new grants, because there just wouldn't have been money for that," she said.

NIH research budgets have been "pretty tight" for several years since 2003, excluding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as funding for several years failed to keep pace with biomedical inflation, Zeitzer explained.

"The concern that the scientific community has is that a flat budget is never good for progress; it just maintains the status quo, and it does not bode well for younger researchers," she said.

Zeitzer noted that FASEB has been advocating for biology-focused research by letting members of Congress know how much NIH money goes into their respective districts, how that money is used, and how those research institutes partner with businesses in their areas.

Patrick Clemins, director for the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told GWDN yesterday that he agrees with Zeitzer that the final budget agreement spared several research agencies from the deeper cuts passed by House Republicans.

He said that because the government has been funded by continuing resolutions since October, many agencies may have already adjusted their spending down just in case the real budget, when it came, included very deep cuts for the entire year, which would leave them little room to make spending decisions for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Now that the budgets have approved spending that is roughly flat compared to the year before, some agencies that may have been "holding back" on spending so far could have more to spend over the next five and-a-half months than they were spending during the first half of the year, he explained.

"Some people [in the research community] will say, 'This is horrible — we didn't get the increase that we've come to expect every year,'" Clemins said. "But I think that's the wrong way to look at this," he said, and suggested looking at the "broader picture."

"This is the biggest spending cut in American history in a single year, and the fact that research and science agencies were spared the worst of those cuts ... shows that despite the disappointment, that R&D is at the top of the priority list. A lot of agencies suffered much, much greater cuts."

Clemins, who is preparing an annual report on the state of US science funding for AAAS that will be released in May, said that in his analysis funding for basic research, which has "broad bipartisan support," fared better in this budget battle than did applied research projects.

"People see basic research as the fuel for future innovation and future economic growth. The question that people are debating right now — the discussion taking place — is about how far along in the innovation pipeline should government be investing in basic research, and how much we should be investing in applied research."

The 2011 budget agreement is expected to be voted through and signed by Friday, when a short-term resolution to finalize the plan that was agreed upon a week ago will expire.

The debate about this year's funding has played out against the backdrop of the beginning of the 2012 process.

The House Budget Committee has already passed a budget plan for 2012 and the next decade that the committee said would cut $6.2 trillion more in government spending over the next 10 years than President Obama's plan.

Although the agency-level numbers for that plan are not yet available, AAMC has said that the House's 2012 plan would implement a 13.5 percent spending cut followed by a five-year freeze on discretionary spending on health, which includes the NIH.

"While we agree that controlling federal spending is critical to the nation's fiscal health, we hope that Congress will not impose funding cuts that would decrease access to care and the availability of vital community services, and hamper life-saving medical research," AAMC President and CEO Darrell Kirch said in a recent statement.

A five-year freeze would "have a significant impact" on the research community," AAMC's Moore told GWDN, primarily because of the powerful effects of biomedical inflation, which Moore says is estimated to be around three percent annually over the next five years.

"You're talking about a significant loss of purchasing power," said Moore, who suggested that even if funding is frozen at 2011 levels for five years it would amount to a twenty percent loss in purchasing power for NIH.

"I think we're seeing a downward trend for research budgets across the board. Certainly state budgets in most cases are in worse shape than the federal budget," Moore added.

Cuts and freezes at NIH and other science agencies over time create "uncertainty about what the budgets going to be like over the next five years — and makes it very difficult for institutions to plan, particularly in terms of new initiatives, because they don't know whether or not the federal money is going to be there," Moore said.

"One thing we're very concerned about is for young people considering careers in science, taking a look at how their mentors may be struggling to hang on to their grants. Having a flat budget is a powerful disincentive to attracting our best and brightest students into research career," he added.

Just as the 2011 bill is up for final passage, today the House is scheduled to begin discussions of the deficit-cutting 2012 plan that already passed out of the budget committee.

"We know that there's going to be a tough fight ahead," Zeitzer told GWDN.

"But when the White House is talking about an innovation agenda and protecting our investment in research, that's very helpful, and it's just a matter of getting more champions on Capitol Hill to see that as well."

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