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U.S. Budget Deal Would Ease Science Agencies' Pain

Congress is preparing a plan to end mandatory cuts until 2016



NSF

Congress has announced that it is close to a deal on government spending that would, for the next two years, eliminate the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The deal offers a respite from the partisan battles over government spending that culminated in October with a 16-day government shutdown, and it would give a budgetary boost to science agencies in 2014, rather than another set of cuts.

The proposal was unveiled December 10 by Democratic and Republican negotiators from the House of Representatives and the Senate. Sequestration, which trimmed roughly 5 percent from the $1.043-trillion federal discretionary budget in 2013, was set to claim another 2 percent in fiscal year 2014, which began on October 1. But the latest proposal would increase the government’s discretionary spending by roughly 4.5 percent this year, to $1.012 trillion. Fiscal year 2015 would see another small boost, to $1.014 trillion. (Discretionary spending includes funding for civilian and military agencies, but not "entitlement" spending for programs such as Social Security.)

House and Senate leaders hope to approve the plan by December 12, and President Barack Obama said on December 10 that he will sign the measure into law once it is approved.

The developments prompted cautious optimism from science advocates. “This is good news for science agencies,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Washington, D.C. She hopes that the spending deal will relieve pressure on agencies, some of which, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, reduced the value and duration of grant awards to make ends meet during 2013. Several others, including the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted mandatory unpaid leave for employees. “We are thrilled to see Congress dump most of sequestration,” Zeitzer says.

But Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., warns that science agencies are not yet out of the woods. Even if Congress approves the overall government spending levels for 2014 and 2015 this week, the House and Senate must approve detailed budgets for each agency before the current stopgap spending law expires on January 15.

“We’re living with a little bit less uncertainty, but we’re certainly not at a point where a thriving scientific enterprise needs to be,” Lubell says.With so few business days before that deadline, Lubell worries that will not have time to draw up detailed plans, and will instead propose an across-the-board increase that would give agencies little discretion to start or end programs.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on December 11, 2013.

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