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Sequestration Frustration

Widespread budget cuts are forcing federal employees and academics to make some tough decisions

by Andrea Widener , Linda Wang
September 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 35

Credit: C&EN
Watch how one research lab at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is coping with the effects of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

It’s her day off, and Deana Crumbling can’t stop thinking about work. The environmental scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency has been furloughed for 10 days without pay from May through September, and she isn’t allowed to work on her furlough days. Back at the office, her assignments have piled up with no relief in sight.

Meanwhile, she’s doing her best to keep up. “I work through lunch, stay late, whatever it takes,” says Crumbling, who works in the Office of Solid Waste & Emergency Response.

Employee furloughs are among the most immediate and visible signs of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration, but the impacts to federally funded research projects, academic grants, and scientists’ morale run far deeper. Most federal agencies have seen important projects slowed or terminated, academics have seen delayed grants and fewer overall grants available, and everyone in the research community has felt the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next. The sequester will be in place through 2021 unless Congress acts to change the law.

“I have never seen it as difficult as it is today to obtain the funding and resources needed to perform our research,” says Benjamin R. Miller, a research scientist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

Sequestration was never supposed to happen. It was built into the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a stick to force a bipartisan group of legislators called the supercommittee to make a deal to reduce the immense federal deficit. The law makes major cuts, averaging 8%, to most discretionary programs that Congress votes on each year. These cuts affect almost all federal R&D funding.

The cuts were so big—approximately $1 trillion over 10 years—and hit so many programs important to both Republicans and Democrats that most people thought they would never be allowed to happen. But when the supercommittee failed to reach a compromise, the sequester kicked in. And although Congress did postpone the start date from January to March 1 of this year, the budget cuts have begun.

President Barack Obama has made it clear he wants to replace sequestration with a broader deficit reduction package, something most in Congress agree with. But to date, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on what such a package would include. Until that happens, the sequester is here to stay.

Credit: Katie Barnella, USGS MN Water Science Center
Sequestration jeopardizes projects like Bales’s efforts to understand how nutrients are processed in streams.
Photo shows a man conducting stream metabolism studies on the Mississippi River near Itasca, MN.
Credit: Katie Barnella, USGS MN Water Science Center
Sequestration jeopardizes projects like Bales’s efforts to understand how nutrients are processed in streams.

After sequestration went into effect, the harmful impact of cuts in some specific jobs, such as air traffic controllers, showed up immediately, which caused Congress to swiftly alter those cuts. But for most federal R&D agencies, the effects, such as delayed grants, canceled research projects, or pay cuts, weren’t as obvious.

“We said it would not be immediate doom and gloom,” explains Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering at the Department of Defense, which had $1 billion cut from its $12 billion research budget for fiscal 2013. “It is more like a death of a thousand cuts.”

Six months after the start of sequestration, its impacts continue to play out. Most scientists understand cuts have to be made to bring down the deficit, but they are worried about the consequences for science of such arbitrary reductions, which have impacted almost every program.

For instance at NOAA, Miller says that the budget cuts have forced the agency to close several long-term sampling sites used to monitor greenhouse gases and other chemicals in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change and ozone depletion. That is creating gaps in the data, which the agency uses to create models, Miller notes. “It’s like introducing a blind spot where you had vision at one time.”

Furthermore, “each of those sites has taken a significant investment to start up,” he says, pointing out that NOAA recently had to close a sampling site in Mongolia. “To have these sites be snuffed out is a great loss because it’s really difficult to get them started again.”

Crumbling says sequestration has meant that EPA management has no choice but to delay some contaminated site cleanups. “There isn’t the money to deal with them at the moment,” she says.

Jerad Bales, chief scientist for water at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), says his agency has had to shut down several stream gauges, which measure how much water is moving down a river at a particular point. Among other applications, these gauges are used by the National Weather Service to forecast floods.

“We have cut to the bone,” Bales says. “You just keep trimming, and trimming, and trimming until it’s not a viable program anymore.” He’s worried about USGS’s ability to anticipate and potentially mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

Investments in new equipment and technologies are also being scaled back, NOAA’s Miller says. “That’s frustrating because we need to be on the cutting edge of science in order to be able to deliver the products to society that we feel society needs” to make educated decisions on issues that impact people’s lives.

Recent travel restrictions imposed by the White House Office of Management & Budget have added to the frustration. OMB has told agencies to cut their travel budgets by 30% and to obtain special approvals for meetings spending that exceeds $100,000, as well as agency director approval for meetings spending that exceeds $500,000. Bales says that from March 1 through the end of June, USGS cut its spending on scientific meetings by $2.7 million from the same period in 2012. “That’s where a lot of science gets done, it’s where we collaborate with colleagues, it’s where we find new ideas, and where we generate new work,” he says.

For example, USGS sent 60 employees to the Ecological Society of America meeting in 2012, Bales says, but sent roughly 40 this year. Last year the agency sent 70 people to the Seismological Society of America meeting but only 14 this year, to avoid having to secure permission from the Department of the Interior, a lengthy process.

EPA is encouraging its employees to take advantage of virtual training opportunities, but that is not a substitute for personal interactions, Crumbling says. “Part of our job is to keep up with new research, and we can’t do that anymore. We have to rely on what’s published a lot more than when we used to be able to talk to people at conferences.”

All these impacts have lowered employee morale. “We’ve had high-level, long-term employees who have decided they’re going to take early retirement. That’s a loss,” Miller says. “What’s worse is that we no longer have the funding to replace them.”

Sequestration At A Glance

What is sequestration?

Across-the-board federal budget cuts aimed at reducing the federal debt, set out in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

What programs does it affect?

Almost every federal agency, including research programs. It does not touch mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare, which make up more than half of federal spending. Several other arenas are exempted, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

How long will it last?

Through 2021, unless Congress acts.

How much money is involved?

Cuts of $1 trillion through 2021. The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates a $54.4 billion cut from R&D funding in the first five years.

How does it work?

In a manner similar to garnished wages. Congress appropriates part of an agency’s budget each year. The sequester cuts a set percentage off of that amount before each federal agency gets its money.

What happens now?

To be determined. Fiscal 2013 cuts were spread across nearly every program. It is unclear whether agencies will have more flexibility going forward.

Those losses are a major concern for Shaffer at DOD. Furloughs, years of stagnant wages, and cuts to conferences and travel take their toll.

“Scientists are not motivated by money as much as by having the opportunity to discover something and make an impact. Furloughs and other impacts of the sequester “mean some scientists can’t work on the things they love working on,” he says. “I know that some of our talented young scientists are looking elsewhere, and that talent is going to be hard to replace.”

DOD also can’t start applied research projects to move the new capabilities developed by military researchers into the field. For example, in previous years the agency started 20 projects a year to demonstrate late-stage prototypes. In fiscal 2013, DOD could only start 10.

“We are faced with the double whammy of a budget reduction against an increasingly capable set of potential adversaries,” Shaffer says. “We won’t know the full impact for several years.”

The feeling that the worst could still be coming is also haunting researchers in academe, where less money means more competition for fewer grants. In fiscal 2013, that will mean approximately 500 fewer grants from DOD, down from about 5,500 in 2012; 700 fewer from the National Institutes of Health, down from around 44,000 in 2012; and 600 fewer from the National Science Foundation, down from 11,800 in 2012. Agencies took several months to figure out how grants would be affected and how many would take a hit, which left many researchers in limbo until a decision was reached. Some are still waiting.

For Laura Niedernhofer, an associate professor in the department of metabolism and aging at Scripps Research Institute Florida, that meant “it was a year of complete anxiety.” She had heard she had earned a high score on a grant proposal to NIH—but given the sequester, that didn’t necessarily mean she was going to get funding.

So while she waited to hear, she took defensive measures. She turned away graduate students, not allowing them to even rotate through her lab. She cut back on going to conferences. She told her lab team to order fewer supplies and put off equipment purchases. “I think the anxiety trickles down” to the students and postdocs in the lab, even when professors try not to let it, Niedernhofer says.

She finally got the welcome news in July that her grant had been funded, but it came with a cut off the top, which is the case with many new and existing NIH grants, though the percentage cut varies across the agency. In Niedernhofer’s case, the 18% reduction meant good-bye to two postdoctoral fellows she had planned to hire. “With this grant I should have been able to expand my lab, but now I can’t,” she says.

The funding cuts don’t just mean she is spending more time worrying about grants. She is also spending more time writing them, which means less time in the lab thinking about her science. In addition, she’s spending more time reviewing others’ submissions to funding agencies. “The first thing that is going to go is the innovative,” she says. With funds limited, reviewers will avoid risky projects and instead may favor ones that have a more certain outcome.

Right now the cuts appear to be mostly coming at the expense of positions for graduate students and postdocs, says Matt Owens, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. “Imagine the signal that we are beginning to send to budding scientists and engineers,” Owens says.

“We’ve got graduate students and postdocs who are looking in the mirror every morning and thinking, ‘Should I be doing something different with my life?’ ” says Thomas O. Baldwin, a biochemistry professor the University of California, Riverside.

Credit: Sonja Wolter
Scientist Christina Hammock performs sampling for NOAA analysis of CO2 and other trace atmospheric compounds at Summit Station, Greenland (elevation 3,209 meters).
Photo of Christina Hammock performing sampling at Summit Station, Greenland (elevation 3209 meters).
Credit: Sonja Wolter
Scientist Christina Hammock performs sampling for NOAA analysis of CO2 and other trace atmospheric compounds at Summit Station, Greenland (elevation 3,209 meters).

It could get worse because not all agencies felt the full brunt of the sequester this year. A quirk of the funding cycle gave a handful of federal agencies a budget increase before the sequester was cut off the top. For instance, the National Institute of Standards & Technology actually had a 2.5% increase from 2012 levels, though it did not protect all programs from sequester cuts.

NSF ended up with a total cut of only 2.1% from 2012 levels, significantly less than approximately 5% it had expected, explains Michael C. Sieverts, head of its budget division. The result is that the agency will have to cut only 600 grants rather than the 1,000 that it had initially anticipated, he says.

NSF decided early on not to cut existing grants, just give out fewer new grants, he says. The agency also did all it could to protect major construction projects, since delays can cause prices to balloon.

But this allowed NSF to maintain the status quo, not start new projects or take the agency in new directions. “We’re in a constrained environment,” Sieverts says. “We had ambitions, but we knew early on that we wouldn’t be able to achieve those.”

And if the sequester continues over several years, the agency will have to make some more difficult decisions about what to fund in the future, Sieverts says. “Just given the overall pressure on research, we would have to look fundamentally at our balance between our existing programs.”

Scientific organizations, like C&EN’s publisher, the American Chemical Society, are also worried about the impact this budget environment could have on its members. ACS is conducting an informal, rolling survey to find out how sequestration is affecting its membership. Of the roughly 3,000 members who responded to date, nearly half reported being affected in some way by sequestration or related budget cuts.


“These numbers are just going to get worse, and, as long as sequestration continues year after year, I think it will start to have more of a negative impact on the scientific enterprise,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of the ACS Office of Public Affairs. The survey remains open at so ACS can continue to take the pulse.

What worries Ruskin most is the impact on ACS members’ efforts to bring about new breakthroughs. “I think it’s bad for our members, but for our country I’m really worried,” he says. “If our economic growth isn’t sustainable, then there’s going to be a retrenchment, and we could very well find ourselves in an uncompetitive situation.”

ACS is doing what it can in Washington, D.C., Ruskin says, but ACS members themselves can be the most effective lobbyists for predictable and sustained funding for scientific research. He encourages ACS members to contact their own legislators. The Office of Public Affairs provides a number of resources, including a new video series, at to help members voice their concerns to Congress.

And that is especially important because there is no indication that Congress and the President will be able to reach a compromise that would stop sequestration in 2014 or beyond.

It’s a long road ahead, but scientists are determined to stay the course. “As scientists, we’re providing a very important product to society,” Miller says. “So we’re dedicated to staying, even if the ship goes down.”


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