The Sequester and the Research Scientist

Note: It’s Saturday (well, it WAS Saturday), and that means this is my opinion and not necessarily that of Astrobites. Justin Vasel already covered the numbers here.


Well. That happened.

It’s sad how little fanfare there was in the run-up to the federal budget sequester this March 1st. Unlike the “fiscal cliff” over New Year’s, the sequester was greeted not with outrage but with a resigned, slightly disgusted sigh. There was no reason to get outraged, because no one had high enough expectations of the negotiation process to be upset by its failure. This is what we have been reduced to. This is, now, how our government functions: like an undergrad juggling too many classes, moving from panicked deadline to panicked deadline, each time telling itself that this is the last straw, the absolute late one, and next time it will shape up and stop procrastinating and do all the reading beforehand and go to office hours and it’s deleting Facebook right now, dammit, this time will be different. This is how we operate now.

Wisconsin rep. Sean Duffy (R), menacing Thomas Jefferson (or possibly some ducks). (Image credit: Washington Post)

Some background, then. The sequester is an across-the-board cut to all agencies receiving federal money (including defense), deliberately designed to be so unpalatable to all members of Congress that they would be forced to negotiate another solution before it kicked in. Clearly Congress has a stronger stomach than we thought. I wonder what might have happened if the sequester had stated that Congress would stop getting paid on March 1st. Instead, it’s everyone else.

The sequester is in fact the much-delayed legacy of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Budget Control Act, you may remember, was the compromise reached during the debt-ceiling argument. The BCA formed a “supercommittee” to evaluate the growth of the federal budget deficit and suggest ways to fix it. In the event that the supercommittee ended up not getting anything done, which to no one’s shock was what happened, across-the-board cuts would be triggered beginning in 2013. These cuts were delayed by the resolution passed over New Year’s, but only till March 1st. March 1st came and went with no agreement, and so the cuts were signed into law.

The bulk of the cuts are divided into two areas: defense discretionary spending and non-defense discretionary spending. The Department of Defense and our “overseas contingency operations,” aka the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fall under the first category. Cabinet-level agencies like DoE and federal agencies like NASA fall under the second. While “discretionary spending” may sound like the line item on a conference invoice to cover things like buying the plastic cutlery, in federal budget terms it actually covers all federal agencies. Their money comes from appropriations bills, meaning they are funded at Congress’ discretion rather than at a fixed amount mandated by law.

The total amount cut by the sequester is around $85 billion, although since not all that money was going to be spent this year, it’s effectively around $50 billion. Both the NSF and NASA will see a cut of 5% in their funding from FY 2012; other astronomical funding agencies like the DoE (and other research bastions like the NIH) will see similar effects. Justin Vasel already covered the expected effects of this funding reduction; suffice to say that they aren’t good. If the sequester goes on for too long, NASA will not just have to make cuts to important programs, such as the ones nurturing our nascent commercial spaceflight industry, but also postpone or cancel much-needed facility repairs and upgrades. The number of new grants and fellowships will be reduced across the board. People who are already managing with not much will be forced to get by on even less. Even once this is all (hopefully) solved, the effects of the sequester will linger in the form of construction delays, cost overruns, and reduced grant and fellowship awards.

You may have noticed that the amount saved by these cuts is frankly pathetic in the face of the actual gap between federal spending and revenues. That’s because the sequester is not actually intended to solve anything. It’s intended to hurt all parties by cutting services that everyone can agree are useful. It is, in other words, pure political theater designed to bully our lawmakers into doing their goddamn jobs. And it injures precisely those people who can least afford it.

Sure, the sequester also cuts defense spending. But the defense industry will survive. There’s enough surplus to make it through the lean times. Scientific budgets, on the other hand, have already been flayed to the bone. NASA weathered a truly brutal battle in early 2012 as they scrambled to save JWST in the face of Congressional Republicans attempting to cut the program. NASA’s $17.8 billion budget constitutes less than 0.5% of federal spending. The NSF’s meager $7 billion is an even smaller fraction. In the health sciences, the NIH’s $30 billion is respectable but still less than a penny on the taxpayer dollar. None of these agencies are breaking anyone’s bank, and yet they are being punished because complete strangers cannot agree on where to eat lunch.

If this column sounds angry, it’s because I am angry. I am angry that, despite heroic efforts by groups like the AAS and a handful of politicians who truly seem to care about science as an endeavor, there is still no major discussion of our interests as research scientists in Congress and in the larger political debate. There is one simple reason for this: because there is no money in it. And when there is no money in something, people often make the mistake of believing there is no importance in it, either. Even within debates over the sequester there has been little mention of the potentially chilling effect such a funding reduction could have on the American research community.

If you've made it this far, you probably have an anger headache too. Here's a cute bunny to make you feel less like you're about to have an aneurysm. (Credit:

Here’s a cute bunny to make you feel less like you’re about to have an aneurysm. (Credit:

There is no astronomy industry, and wealthy single donors – long the much-loved benefactors of such workhorse institutions as Lick Observatory (James Lick, SF real estate mogul), the Keck telescope (W. M. Keck, oil baron), and the Allen Telescope Array (Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder) – can’t pick up the tab for next-generation projects like JWST or the Thirty-Meter Telescope whose costs run into the billions. University funding is another major resource, but reductions in federal money often mean reductions in university budgets as well. Students facing the loss of grant funding will turn to fellowships – but those fellowships are awarded by the same agencies, out of the same resource pool. Granting agencies will be forced to decrease assistance exactly when students need it most.

I don’t know how the sequester is going to be resolved. I predict that eventually a deal will be reached that nobody is really happy about and that everyone tells themselves is just in place until the next election. I wish I didn’t have to be so cynical about the prospects for long-term compromise, but I’d be flying in the face of the evidence to suggest otherwise.  I don’t think anyone reading this site needs to be convinced that research science – including basic science – is a fundamental driver of innovation and the American economy. Graduate students come from literally across the globe to study at our institutions. But the effect of the sequester is just the latest in a long string of events demonstrating a frankly depressing lack of respect for science in American political discourse. The Superconducting Supercollider is a half-flooded pit. The Space Shuttle is a museum piece. The first man to set foot on the moon passed away before we ever returned. The amount our government currently spends on scientific research is already low; it’s incredibly sad to see it go lower.

I don’t have much in the way of a solution to offer here, either, other than to suggest the usual route of calling or writing your Senators and Representatives (don’t email, emails are almost always ignored). I suppose all I can really say is this: I am disappointed. I’m disappointed in my country and my government. I am disappointed that we are no longer able to function any better than an overstressed undergrad staggering from deadline to deadline. And I am disappointed that it is research science – a discipline that has enabled this country to do amazing things – that will suffer for it.

About Elizabeth Lovegrove

I'm a graduate student at the University of California - Santa Cruz, working with Stan Woosley on simulations of supernovae. In the past I've tinkered with gamma-ray astronomy, galaxy evolution, exoplanet detection, and instrument design. I like supercomputers, aircraft, observing runs, loud techno, and videogames. I am on an unending quest to develop the nerdiest joke in the world. You can find me on Twitter at @GravityAndLight.

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  1. For all this is worth, I agree with you completely. North American contempt for science the worst I’ve ever seen it.

    Isn’t it funny how all the governmental fiscal maneuvering never cuts politicians’ salaries?

  2. As much as I am in favor of research into all the sciences, researchers of all types should not feel ‘entitled’ to federal funds. If research is not funded, it is because a strong enough case in the face of competing interests has not been made.

    Even from a low twig on a low branch of the research funds allocation tree, it is clear to me that money is spread liberally and that some research can be cut with little impact in the long-range trajectory of improving science for the benefit of mankind.

    Finally, if this post sounds critical of the article, it is not. We need good thought provoking discussions to improve the arguments in support of research. Good job on the article and good luck with snagging future research funds.

    • I think you’re definitely right that researchers should never feel entitled to government funding. Every so often I look around my office and marvel at the fact that I actually get paid to do science, and I think it’s amazing. I’m very glad I live in a nation and in a time that considers research science an important enough profession to support it.

      What really galls me, and what impelled me to write this piece, is the idea that our research institutions are suffering not because of a clear discussion of the merits of their work, but because our lawmakers have acted irresponsibly. It does not seem fair to me that organizations that take very little from the overall federal pool of money, and that provide much in return, should suffer penalties as a result of political grandstanding. Yet because research science is rarely discussed in a political context, the harm done as a side effect of actions like the sequester is overlooked.


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