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How sequester cuts could set back scientific research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are among those hit hard by the sequester cuts that take effect on March 1.  

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A scientist Ji Guo inspects test tubes containing dyes in a Food and Drug Administration laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland in August 2012.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File

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An $85-billion across-the-board slash to funding for federal agencies and programs is set to take effect Friday (Mar. 1), and many of the nation's top science agencies will feel the blow.

The cuts, known by the unwieldy term "the sequester," were designed as a last-ditch measure in case Congress couldn't reach a deal to reduce the federal deficit. The cuts were scheduled to take effect Jan. 2, 2013 — the so-called "fiscal cliff" — but Congress delayed them until this week.

The cuts apply to both defense and non-defense programs. Non-defense agencies can expect a reduction in funding of about 5 percent, but since that applies to the entire year, it amounts to a cut of more like 9 percent, officials say.

Research agencies will feel the effects particularly keenly. "This is hugely important for everybody who cares about science," Mary Woolley, president of the not-for-profit group Research!America, told LiveScience. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

Who's affected?

The affected agencies include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, among others.

The NSF funds about a fifth of all federally funded basic research at American colleges and universities, in fields ranging from biology to math and computer science. In response to the sequester cuts, the agency anticipates it will award about 1,000 fewer research grants. This will affect almost 12,000 people, including professors, college students and K-12 teachers, and could reduce research on clean energy, job-creating advances in manufacturing, cybersecurity efforts and improvements to undergraduate science education, according to a Feb. 4 letter from the NSF to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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The NIH, which funds much of the country's biomedical research, will be similarly slammed. The agency will lose an amount of money equivalent to the funding for three major cancer research programs, according to Research!America. Studies that could ultimately drive down the cost of health care, one of the biggest contributors to the deficit, will slow down, Woolley told LiveScience. "It will also potentially add to our national deficit instead of cutting it," Woolley said, adding that the cuts are expected to affect young scientists in particular. [Image Gallery: The Art in Biomedical Research]

The reductions will also impose a nearly $900 million budget cut on NASA. This will affect the agency's commercial crew program, which is subsidizing human spaceflight systems at Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada. The upshot? The United States will become more reliant on other countries for transportation to the International Space Station, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Others affected by the cuts include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Cuts to these agencies could affect the nation's ability to monitor threats to public health or approve new drugs.

In December 2012, more than 100 scientific societies signed a letter to the White House and Congress in a plea to avoid the funding cuts. "It is important to recognize that federal research and development (R&D) investments are not driving our national deficits," the letter stated. "Placing a significant burden on these crucial areas, as sequestration would do, is nothing less than a threat to national competitiveness."

Sequester cuts will hit defense programs even harder, with a 9 percent funding cut (again, applied to the entire fiscal year) to all programs except military personnel. Affected entities include research programs like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has funded noteworthy technologies such as computer networking and the development of prosthetic arms.

Not over yet

Currently, government agencies are operating under what's called a "Continuing Resolution," a stopgap measure that will expire March 27. While some agencies have continued to spend the money they were allocated in the science budget, others are tightening their belts in anticipation of leaner days ahead.

The agencies probably won't be firing people, but there will likely be furloughs (mandatory days of unpaid leave), according to a former congressional budget official who wished to remain anonymous. The furloughs would also apply to contractors, the official said.

Congress must pass legislation later this month once the resolution expires, which could keep the cuts in place, reduce them or even increase the reductions.

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