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Sequester's Last Days?

Is it time for the US research community to storm the field, crash the court, and pop the bubbly? Is the sequester, which bluntly lopped around 5 percent off of federal science funding this year, really dead?

Under the new agreement between Congressional budget negotiating teams that was unveiled this week, it would appear that a plan has been reached that would remove most, if not all, of the sequestration cuts that have hit labs at universities and institutes around the country, Science reports.

The deal, which must traverse some headwinds in both the House of Representatives and Senate before it can pass, would increase discretionary spending this fiscal year to $1.012 trillion, which is roughly a mid-point number between what the Democrats who control the US Senate and Republicans who run the House of Representatives had asked for to fund the government this year.

The plan would fund the government through the end of 2015, according to the New York Times, which could lend some stability to the budgeting process for agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It would get rid of around $63 billion in sequestration cuts to discretionary domestic and military spending, but it also would provide $23 billion in deficit reduction by extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers for two additional years, so that it would remain in place until 2023.

It is a modest deal, to be sure. But it could unbind Congressional appropriators' hands to enable them to do things that they have wanted to do for the past several years, while budget battles have raged on — funding biomedical science, for example. NIH funding is about as popular as anything can be on Capitol Hill, and has been highlighted as a priority by key budget drafters on both sides of the aisle.

President Barack Obama says the deal "clears the path for critical investments in things like scientific research, which has the potential to unleash new innovation and new industries."

Since the sequester was enacted, cutting $1.6 billion out of NIH's budget, the biomedical research community has put in an unprecedented amount of effort lobbying Congress and raising awareness about the value of research to human health and to the US economy. Those dramatic cuts may have galvanized the community, but even if this deal ends the sequestration, advocates say their work will not be done because the decade-long erosion of NIH funding due to inflation has worn down the spending power of research dollars.

"While I am pleased to see the deal includes some relief from sequestration and we strongly support its passage by Congress, it is a small step forward in mending the damage done to medical research supported by NIH," United for Medical Research President Carrie Wolinetz said in a statement after the budget agreement was unveiled.

What she wants to see is an increase to the NIH budget so that it keeps pace with inflation, or a total appropriation of around $32 billion this year.

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