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    U.S. Science Is Still Headed Off the Fiscal Cliff

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Hey team, don't be fooled by yesterday's fiscal cliff "breakthrough." We just got played. That after-the-last-minute deal upped some tax rates on the super-wealthy--those making more than $400,000 a year--to a whopping 39.6 percent, which is five or so percentage points higher than I pay as a freelance worker making relative couch change. Crucially, the deal included no spending cuts... but only for two months. The across-the-board 8 percent budget slashes known as the sequester are still on the table, just delayed, pending a TBD deficit reduction plan part II. 

    Since it hasn't changed, save for the effective date, I'll quote myself on the sequester and American science:

    Rather than being cuts made with actual consideration for the things being cut, the sequester lops off an equal amount from every government agency. According to a Nature piece today, that would come out to be about 7.8 percent for 2013, depending somewhat on revenue. And that number is even somewhat optimistic. Nature continues, “Research advocates are particularly concerned that the sequester might be adjusted to prevent cuts to defence. If that happened, non-military programmes would be forced to bear more than twice the currently mooted cut. Such an extreme measure would threaten entire facilities and sideline thousands of research grants.”

    “A lot of programs wouldn’t survive,” Mike Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told Nature. "They’d be vaporized.” And understand that 7.8 percent isn’t from individual programs, it’s from agencies. Which means that a federal agency could decide to totally nix one program so they don’t have to cut another — in other words, the agency decides increasing funding for program x is more important than the bare existence program y. (Only one agency likely won’t have its budget go down, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), and that’s only because its initial budget request included a very large increase.)

    The biggest losers will likely be the Centers for Disease Control, NASA’s science arm, the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both the CDC and NASA stand to lose over 10 percent in 2013, factoring in pre-existing planned budget cuts.  

    Actually, the situation is a lot worse now. There'll need to be another negotiation before the sequester hits but, this time, it will only be about spending. The small government boosters have the upper hand now to a chilling degree. With the threat of higher taxes out of the way, right wingers no longer have to worry about that aspect of the fiscal cliff. As the bit above alludes to, the sequester includes military spending, which is the one downside to the sequester for Republicans, though it's safe to say that Democrats aren't terribly likely to use military spending cuts as a bargaining chip.  

    Probably, cuts to Social Security and Medicare will make up the bulk of fiscal cliff redux, but one imagines Republicans really going for it and going after research and beyond too, particularly anything climate-related. The cuts likely won't be as bad as under the sequester, but, given the ongoing choking of science funding in the U.S., the effect will still be pretty terrible. Also note that this spending discussion is scheduled to go down right as the U.S. once again hits the debt ceiling and as it negotiates a 2013 budget, which would have been normally done the year before but, well, the New Way of financial planning in America is just not doing it.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.