How will the Sequester affect science

Basic science — the kind of research done for curiosity's sake, in order to better understand how parts of our world work — is the foundation of applied science — research that's aimed at developing a product, or tool, or achieving a goal. In the United States, the federal government is, by far, the number one funding source for basic research. So what happens to that investment in our future when things like the Sequester come along? Obviously, funding goes down. But the details are what's important here. Tom Levenson explains the short-term and long-term impacts.


  1. Can somebody tell us WTF “The Sequester” is, please? I skimmed TFA and even that doesn’t seem to define it.

    1. (Non-US tl;dr – the US government is playing austerity politics in a way both parties will hate, arbitrary deadline for resolving differences hits tomorrow.)

      Do read about some national political issues on occasion (if you’re an American; if not, you’ve probably got some in your own country.)  As part of the two main political parties’ unwillingness to agree on a budget, they made a deal last year that if they hadn’t gotten something done by a date in the far future (tomorrow), the President would have to “sequester” an appallingly high 2-3% of Federal budget spending, implemented as across-the-board cuts in everything except a few protected areas such as Social Security and military salaries. 

      It was a great deal for the Republicans, because they didn’t have to anger their right-wing base before the election by raising taxes on rich people, or their military-industrial base by cutting military spending, or old people (including Democrats and older Republicans) by cutting Social Security, and they could gamble on taking back control of the Senate during the election. 

      It wasn’t a bad deal for the Democrats, because they could look like they were being responsive and responsible, and could avoid having to tell old people that Social Security is a total mess, and gamble on  keeping control of the Senate and maybe taking part of the House, and they figured that Obama could win a game of Budget Chicken against the Republicans the way Clinton stomped Gingrich at it. 

      1. Social Security has easily manageable financing issues which are based on projections far enough out that it isn’t a terrible idea to ignore them for another five years until, hopefully, the republican party is less insane or, quite likely, we can ignore them for another five years.

        The projected “bankruptcy” (aka 20% or so benefit cut assuming no other policy changes) date has been sliding into the future fairly consistently for three decades.  For most of that time the projected crisis has slipped 1 year into the future for each year that passes.  It actually managed to get 5 years or so closer during the recent near depression financial meltdown.

  2. the impact on basic science will be one of the many horrid effects of the sequester if it really happens (we won’t know until april 1, practically).  the truth is that the past few years have been a woeful and rocky road for research in general–not a great time to be a young scientist or assistant professor looking to fund your ideas–it seems many funding calls now have some sort of industrial buy-in.  research into the basic foundational principles of the universe has resulted in huge positive economic impacts (we can start with the transistor alone…), but funding has been ever more relegated into the “so what let’s cut it” pile it seems.  research support in real dollars (aside from a few biomedical fields of research) has been steadily dropping for years.

  3. Wow, one might expect a Professor of Science Writing to actually be able to do basic math. The sequester is barely a real cut, consisting mostly of reduced levels of planned spending increases. The number he quotes from MIT, $40 million, sounds like a lot … until you realize that MIT has a $1.3 billion sponsored research budget, and the cut amounts to a mere 2.9% of that:

    On that same page, you’ll notice that revenues at MIT exceeded expenditures by nearly five times the $40 million cut number he mentioned, so why isn’t he calling for MIT to reduce profits to compensate? Further, the MIT research budget has been exploding over recent decades, fueled by federal dollars:

    So this “cut” will amount to maintaining spending at approximately the 2011 level – hardly the stuff of “grim weeks” and “evil”, let alone individuals struggling to pay the monthly rent.

    Dig a little deeper, and you’ll realize who MIT’s major funders are: agencies like, oh, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. And what would they be researching, exactly, and does anyone think there’s probably a lot of research there we could do without? Dig again, and you look at the comment about Eric Lander being able to handle the budget cuts … and then you realize that the reason isn’t because Eric Lander is rich, it’s because Eric Lander is *connected*: he just happens to be the co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

    Once you’re done digging, you’ll see what this is: a vastly overinflated, bloviated tale of doom designed to politically demonize even these minor reductions in planned spending increases – cuts that don’t hold a candle to the real cuts that must happen if the U.S. government is to ever be solvent again.

    1.  Do you work as a scientist/researcher at a university?  I do.  Do you rely on federal grants for your income?  I do.  And I can tell you, we’re all terrified of what’s coming.  It doesn’t matter that the university has extra money.  We entirely fund ourselves off of grants.  While we don’t know the impact yet on our current grant, we do know that the funding agencies are waiting to decide on any new grants until they figure out what is exactly going to happen to their budgets.  Our grant runs out this summer.  If we don’t get at least one of the grants we have under consideration right now, my boss and I are both out of a job.  We’ll still have a job title, but there won’t be money to pay us.  Depending on the university, some faculty members will still have an income, but without their federal grants, they can’t pay their staff.  Those grants include overhead that goes to pay administrative, maintenance, and other support staff.

      So yes, maybe it is overinflated.  Maybe it won’t be that bad.  But the view from the cheap seats right now looks pretty shitty.

      1. That’s why I’m bailing out and going to work in industry.  That’ll hopefully save me, but the long term impact of cutting basic research will be disastrous for everyone.  (Yes, even all those ignorant jackasses who don’t realize that their smartphones and xboxes are the product of massive government investment in basic research over the last 60 years, at least as much as industrial R&D)

    1. Obviously. Congress has been spoiling to change the laws of physics for quite some time now.

  4. I can offer a perspective as a more senior, U.S. nuclear physics graduate student, who is currently working at one of the big national labs.  Let me clarify, when I say “nuclear”, this is  not really nuclear energy or weapons, but rather all of the big accelerator and collider experiments.  The slightly older, and more specialized, versions of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

    Before all the sequester and budget cut talk, the funding for nuclear physics, and then physics in general was looking pretty grim.  There are 3 major US “nuclear designated” labs, RHIC, JLab, and FRIB, (You can google these for more info).  Basically, with the realistic scenario, there’s a good chance one of the three would be shut down, likely RHIC.  Not only would a chunk of the American high energy scientists lose their jobs, but it would slow down PhD production.  It would also make it more difficult for newer PhDs to find jobs, as spots would quickly be filled by more senior members of those in the closed labs.  Funding would be reduced in all labs, projects delayed, etc.  This includes the smaller US labs, or ones with only a portion of “nuclear” funding, such as Fermilab, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, NIST. Chats with friends at these labs seem even more grim, with talks of unpaid leave for workers to make up the cost deficits.

    This was before the sequester.  As only a grad student, my information is limited, but I have been trying to keep up with any science policy info I can find the past few weeks.  I’m rather pessimistic… let’s just say I’ve taken my Mandarin self-study a bit more seriously.

  5. howdy….i’m a researcher at a government DOD research facility.  will sequestration effect us??  we’re being told that we’ll have to take 1 day off per week without pay starting in ~April.  that’s significant.  less research occurring.  less pay in our pockets.  less publications which make it harder to get funding in the future.  :(

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