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Sequestration- The Policy Kind, Not the Carbon Kind: The biggest science issue scientists aren't talking about

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By Meredith Niles - Posted on 17 September 2012

I’m a policy wonk, I’ll admit it. Politico, the US Senate and US House of Representatives webpages are bookmarked on my web browser. I am also a scientist, and for the past years have been working to combine these two interests towards a career in science policy. As a graduate student, I understand the daily demands of academic life for my fellow students,teachers and advisers. Teaching, advising and running experiments while trying to crank out academic publications every year is not an easy task. So, for many scientists there are simply not enough hours in the day to engage in science policy debates and advocacy. But right now scientists in the United States are facing one of the greatest policy issues of our time- sequestration.

This sequestration is the policy kind, not the carbon kind. It’s the result of government attempts to reduce the federal deficit without bipartisan cooperation and agreement on how to do that. When the gang of six (a bipartisan group of senators) failed to reach agreement on how to reduce the federal deficit, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandated that “sequestration”- e.g. across the board blanket budget cuts- would take effect starting in January 2013. It has literally never happened before and most of us have never even heard of it. If enacted it will have the greatest effect on higher education and science funding in recent memory.

Last week the White House released a report detailing how these cuts will happen. In short, federal agencies will take an 8.2% cut in non-defense discretionary funding and a 7.6% cut in non-defense mandatory funding. This isn’t a pick and choose cut- this is every agency and program you can imagine. The National Science Foundation research funding will lose $463 million. Not funded through NSF? Sadly, it doesn’t matter- the National Institutes of Health will lose $2.5 BILLION, NASA science funding is less $417 million, Department of Energy science is down $400 million, EPA Science down $16 million, and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture research and extension lose $97 million.

Worse still, the Department of Education office for higher education is going to take a huge cut to the tune of $186 million. The Office of Federal Student Aid will lose $140 million in student financial assistance. The direct student loan program is out $90 million. The impacts literally stretch into everything you can imagine- from the Post Office to pensions to prisons. Perhaps most perplexing is that no one- neither party- wants sequestration to take effect. Republicans are worried about the effect of defense spending cuts while Democrats fear the loss to social programs. Somewhere in the middle are the American people who stand to lose jobs in a still shaky economic environment and the potential for an entire generation of youth to suffer from the opportunities afforded by higher education and science funding.

As a scientist, a graduate student and even a policy wonk I’m horrified about the potential for sequestration. It’s been relatively hush-hush until the White House released their report. The general Washington sentiment is a disbelief that politicians would cut federal funding in such a dramatic and non-targeted approach. But the reality is there- sequestration will happen, and is required to happen by law, unless Washington can come together to stop it. Bipartisan attempts to do so have already failed once and as scientists we need to speak up about the impacts of sequestration. Washington needs to hear how federal funding, grants, and resources drive our universities, employ untold people and generate scientific and technological advancements that better society. Call your Senator, your Representative, the science society you belong to and tell them how sequestration will hurt the scientific and education communities. If Washington doesn’t hear from scientists they can only assume we accept that sequestration isn’t a concern. This is the one science policy issue we can’t let pass us by.