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Agency Heads Tell Senate Sequester Will Kill Jobs, Cut Grants

Senior Obama Administration leaders last week told the US Senate that the budget cuts caused by the enactment of the sequestration, if an agreement is not reached to avoid the plan, would cut thousands of research grants and lead to the loss of thousands of jobs.

In her written testimony, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the across-the-board budget cut of around 5.1 percent would "delay progress" on treatments for chronic diseases and would lead to fewer new grants and smaller budgets for some existing programs.

As it is currently constructed, the sequester would cut the entire federal budget by around 5.1 percent, which would amount to around $1.6 billion less for NIH.

"We expect that some existing research projects could be difficult to pursue at reduced levels and some new research could be postponed as NIH would make hundreds fewer awards," Sebelius, who did not attend the hearing, stated in her prepared remarks.

"Actual funding reductions will depend on the final mix of projects chosen to be supported by each institute and center within available resources. With each research award supporting up to seven research positions, several thousand research positions across the nation could be eliminated," Sebelius continued.

National Science Foundation Director Subra Shuresh in his testimony told the committee that his agency would see a reduction of around 1,000 research grants, impacting nearly 12,000 people who are supported by NSF.

Shuresh said that NSF's funding for major equipment purchases and facility construction would drop by around $35 million, "leading to layoffs of dozens of science and technical staff, with larger impacts at supplier companies."

He said that if the sequester does go into effect, his agency would prioritize its existing awards and aim to hold on to the NSF workforce and protect its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics human capital development programs.

Although very few lawmakers on Capitol Hill actually want to see the sequestration happen, if Democrats, Republicans, and the White House are unable to strike a deficit reduction bargain or continue deferring it then the cuts will take effect.

If a deal is struck to cut spending or raise revenues via various means, it appears to be unlikely that the agreement would include much in the way of cuts to discretionary spending, which is a small part of the overall budget, or that biomedical research would be a likely area to be cut.

This is because funding for NIH, NSF, and other science-supporting agencies enjoys quite broad bipartisan support in Congress, and because President Barack Obama regularly emphasizes the importance of investing in research.

In his State of the Union Address last week, Obama said that the sequester cuts would be "harsh, arbitrary," and would "devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research."

The president specifically pointed to genomics as an industry that has been paying taxpayers back for their federal investments.

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. We need to make those investments."