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Federal Budget Deadline Looms

Science Funding: Congressional wrangling makes a government shutdown likely

by Andrea Widener
September 21, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 37

Budget battle by the numbers


$1.016 trillion: Budget cap for fiscal 2016 under sequestration

$1.087 trillion: President Obama’s budget request for 2016

16 days: Length of 2013 shutdown

200: NIH panels postponed during 2013 shutdown

Congress has less than 10 days to reach a budget agreement or the federal government will shut down, a move that could cause major disruptions for scientists inside and outside of government.

Many observers say a shutdown is likely, given the controversial issues Congress has yet to resolve before the 2016 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. They include Republican opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act, as well as debate over a federal budget cap called sequestration.

Scientists felt significant impacts from the last government shutdown in 2013. During those 16 days, many federal researchers’ work was lost or disrupted when they were forced to stay home. Submission and peer review of grant applications stopped, which caused costly delays for scientists seeking federal funding. Agencies also quit work on regulations of interest to the chemical enterprise.

The pending shutdown is particularly unfortunate because, for the first time in years, Congress was primed to pass regular funding bills rather than a series of stopgap measures, says Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an advocacy group. “While the conversation has switched to putting out fires, decision-makers are taking their eyes off the ball of what people really care about,” she says.

Reversing sequestration is among the most important issues for scientists. R&D funding is around $10 billion less than it would have been without sequestration, says Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Most Republicans want to keep the caps, which were created in a deal to constrain the federal debt. Democrats and President Barack Obama would like to lift them. “This debate hasn’t concluded,” Hourihan says.

Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center says the odds are in favor of a short government shutdown. But that could be good for science if the eventual funding deal lifts the sequester, he says. “The outcome will be not as much money as they need, not as much as the country needs, but it will be more than they have been dealing with.”



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