By Ivan Semeniuk , Jeff Tollefson & Meredith Wadman

The US budget battle of 2011 has barely begun, but the opening salvos are echoing loudly across the capitol -- in some cases, signalling the potential for major cuts to labs and regulatory agencies.

With a partial list of spending measures released yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee, Republican leaders have revealed how they hope to trim US$58 billion of non-military spending from the 2011 budget, a target that was announced last week by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. The measures would reduce expenditures on government-funded agencies and programmes, including several related to science and technology (see Table 1). The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to vote on the cuts next week, although this will only be the start of an intense negotiation with the Democrat-controlled Senate, whose consent will also be needed to pass a 2011 federal budget.

Among the hardest hit in the Republicans' plan is the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, which funds research ranging from particle physics to chemistry and materials science. The Committee aims to slice a whopping $1.1 billion from the $5.12 billion requested by President Barack Obama for the Office of Science's 2011 budget.

"It's devastating," says Pat Clemins, director of the budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. "It definitely will affect the ability of the DOE to fill the discovery pipeline."

Other agencies targeted for major cuts include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington DC and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The cuts fall short of the $100 million that Republicans pledged to cut from Obama's 2011 budget request during last autumn's midterm election campaign. House Republican leaders now say that there are limits to how much more they can cut from a budget that has less than seven months to go. The US government's 2011 fiscal year ends on 30 September.

Flat funding

Some of the cuts look worse on paper than they may be in practice. Because the previous Congress was unable to reach a consensus and pass a 2011 budget last year, agencies are currently operating under a continuing resolution that directs them to spend money at 2010 levels. In some cases, the proposed cuts amount to maintaining that 2010 status quo.

For example, NASA -- which is slated by the Appropriations Committee for a $379-million cut -- would remain near its 2010 funding levels. However, this leaves a number of questions unanswered, such as where the agency will find the money to support an extra shuttle flight -- which was approved by Congress last year -- and cover cost overruns by the James Webb Space Telescope project.

Similarly, a proposed $1-billion cut from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, would keep the NIH at its 2010 funding level of $31 billion -- which could even be good news, given that the spending subcommittee that funds the agency was told last week that it would have to cut at least 4% from 2010 levels overall.

"If you look at the size of the reduction that has to occur for the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, I think that this is pretty good news for the NIH," says David Moore, senior director for governmental relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC.

Moore cautions that, with fiscal conservatives still hungry for cuts in both houses of Congress, the flat $31-billion budget represents the best that the NIH can hope for. Open debate in the House and further consideration in the Senate could result in yet more cuts.

Other agencies have not fared so well. The CDC was hit particularly hard: for 2011, Obama proposed a $133-million cut in the agency's 2010 budget, but House appropriators want to cut a further $755 million on top of that. The combined reductions would trim more than 13% from the agency's $6.5-billion discretionary budget for 2010.

The EPA was also slated for a reduction in the president's budget, losing $278 million, but the Republican proposal would cut a further $1.6 billion. The agency would thus see a total reduction of more than 18% compared to the 2010 fiscal year. This removes roughly two-thirds of a massive boost that the agency received last year for initiatives related to water infrastructure, hazardous waste clean-up and a greenhouse-gas registry that was to have served as the basis for a cap and trade system for limiting carbon emissions.

Losing energy

Most striking in its size and political implications is the proposed cut to the DOE Office of Science, which underwrites the lion's share of research in many areas of chemistry and physics in the United States and supports ten national laboratories, including Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

The proposed cut would amount to a nearly 18% reduction from the Office of Science's 2010 budget. The shortfall would presumably have to be absorbed in the final months of the 2011 budget.

"My guess is that the only way they could accommodate that kind of reduction and not break contracts is to close the facilities down for the balance of the year," says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland. "The lab directors were already looking at how they would handle a 5% annual reduction, or maybe as much as 10%, but no one was contemplating a reduction of this size."

The proposal would return the office's funding to 2008 levels. In the 2009 fiscal year, Republicans and Democrats had elected to boost funding by $750 million, part of a broader effort to increase cash flow to the physical sciences under the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which was reauthorized in December. The cuts to the Office of Science -- as well as cuts of $138 million to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland -- means that the 2011 budget would no longer keep pace with the increases written into COMPETES. The National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, which is also marked for funding increases in COMPETES, is still set to receive an increase for 2011.

Tug of war

Although the proposed cuts certainly reflect ideological opposition to Obama's goals from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, they hardly represent the first time that the Obama administration has had difficulty making its case. Congress has funded just three of the Energy Innovation Hubs proposed in the 2010 budget request by Steven Chu, the energy secretary, who described them as potential "Bell lablets" after Bell Laboratories, the United States' most celebrated innovation centre of the cold-war era.

Congressional staffers from both the Republican and Democratic parties complain that Chu and William Brinkman, who heads the Office of Science, have failed to answer lawmakers' questions and provide a compelling vision of their budget priorities, says Lubell. The question now is whether Obama will elect to fight or compromise on the broader budget questions, he says. But if negotiations fail, Lubell adds, "My advice to the DOE would be to play hardball. I don't think you have any choice".

Uncompromising tactics are certainly under way from the House. The proposed cuts -- particularly to clean energy research, which Obama touted as vital to "winning the future" in his state of the union address on 25 January -- stand in stark contrast to the administration's agenda.

On Monday, Obama will unveil his 2012 budget requests, which will reinforce the gap between his plan and that of the Republicans. Meanwhile, the proposed 2011 cuts will be put before the House for a vote. They look set to become one half of a tug of war with Democrats in the Senate as Congress aims to find a workable solution before the current continuing resolution expires on 4 March.

The difference of opinion on energy-related research spending is likely to remain in the spotlight as both sides dig in their heels. When asked why the DOE Office of Science was cut so much, Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said, "The chairman was asked to cut $58 billion. He looked at excess, wasteful, duplicative spending. This is one of the choices that he made."

Additional reporting by Eugenie Samuel Reich.