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Science And The Debt Deal

Politics: Compromise includes cuts that will hit science agencies over the next decade

by Susan R. Morrissey , Glenn Hess , Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay
August 8, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 32

Credit: Pete Souza/White House
President Obama signs the Budget Control Act into law on Aug. 2 at the White House.
Credit: Pete Souza/White House
President Obama signs the Budget Control Act into law on Aug. 2 at the White House.

Legislation signed by President Barack Obama last week to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a default on government loans presents a mixed bag for science. The deal includes more than $900 billion in cuts over the next decade to federal discretionary funds—money that includes support for science agencies.

In terms of an immediate impact, the Budget Control Act of 2011 sets the discretionary spending limit for fiscal 2012 at $1.04 trillion. This is the amount of money Congress can dole out to agencies for the next fiscal year. It is actually $24 million above the amount the House of Representatives set for its 2012 spending limit.

Having this essentially flat cap on spending in place provides agencies with some certainty that there will not be huge across-the-board cuts in 2012, a White House official says. As a result, agencies can begin making preliminary spending decisions for 2012.

Business leaders also appreciate the certainty the measure provides. Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, says the agreement, “while far from perfect, ... begins the process of getting America’s fiscal house in order and was necessary to avoid a default that would have resulted in an economic catastrophe.”

But all federal agencies will face cuts over the long term. Congress will need to make tough spending decisions to comply with the legislation. The impact on science funding remains unclear.

“Everything is subject to being cut,” noted Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) at a press briefing last week. A bipartisan, bicameral “supercommittee,” said Whitfield, chairman of a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee, will closely scrutinize all federal spending.

As Congress irons out the details, the science community will be watching closely. “Budgets for fiscal 2012 and future years will be impacted by mandated reductions in the debt-ceiling deal,” notes Glenn S. Ruskin, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the American Chemical Society. “But how those reductions will be spread out over the agencies is not at all clear right now. ACS will continue to advocate on behalf of predictable and sustained funding for key R&D agencies.”



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