March 2011

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

What the budget forecast holds for scientists.
By collectively continuing to stress the benefits of investment in research, scientists can, like the English at the Battle of Agincourt, prevail when the situation looks its gloomiest.

Three months into 2011, the U.S. government still is lacking a permanent budget for the current fiscal year. Moreover, after the November elections, both parties have started to sing the tune of decreasing government spending. So what is the budget forecast for scientists?

Since fiscal 2011 began on Oct. 1, federal agencies have been operating under a continuing resolution that is holding budgets at the fiscal 2010 level. However, the resolution expires on March 4, meaning Congress will have to come up with another solution to fund the government for the remaining six months of fiscal 2011. Moreover, following the release of President Obama’s budget last month, the legislative branch has begun working on appropriations for fiscal 2012. Clearly, Congress would like to be finished with fiscal 2011 and get started on fiscal 2012 as soon as possible. The question is what those budgets will look like relative to past years.

In January, Republicans unveiled the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, which would reduce nondefense discretionary spending for the remainder of fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2008 levels, followed by a further reduction to fiscal 2006 levels in the succeeding fiscal years. According to their analysis, such measures would save the economy $2.5 trillion during the next decade by reducing funding to several programs, and even eliminating others like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In February, the House of Representatives formally acted on this proposal, voting in favor of an appropriations bill for fiscal 2011 that would reduce spending by more than $60 billion relative to fiscal 2010. The cuts target almost every federal agency, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. However, the Senate is not expected to endorse similar reductions, while President Obama has threatened to veto such a proposal, leading to a need for compromise in order to finalize the spending bill for fiscal 2011. Furthermore, following his call for investment in innovation during the State of the Union address, President Obama requested increases for the NIH and NSF budgets for fiscal 2012.

So how can science thrive in this environment? Shakespeare’s Henry V inspired his outnumbered troops to “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.” Science advocates and researchers will need to be equally truculent as they continue to spread the message about the importance and benefits of science to society.

Funding for scientific research does more than support experiments on lab benches across the country: it also spurs innovation, leading to technological developments and job creation, expands American global influence and competitiveness, and improves public health. Health care costs are predicted to double as a percentage of gross domestic product by 2050. Rather than attempt to pay for these unmanageable costs as they continue to escalate, the government should focus instead on investing in biomedical research, so that scientists can develop preventative therapies and treatments. This is more than good health policy: it also is good economic policy. Lowering health care costs will reduce Medicare and Medicaid budgets, lessening the strain on our economy and shrinking the national debt.
Investing in research also will have a more immediate economic impact. Health-related services based in America added $2.8 trillion to the global economy in 2007 (1), helping the United States maintain its position as a world economic leader. Furthermore, federal support of science spurs job creation and sustained employment. Studies estimate that every NIH R01 grant supports three employees (2), while training grants such as K awards help maintain the scientific pipeline. By supporting graduate student education, NIH grants also prepare the next generation of innovators. Lacking this support, students increasingly will turn away from careers in science, depressing innovation and weakening American global influence.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has signed on to numerous letters sent to congressional leadership enumerating these points, calling for increases in NIH and NSF budgets. Additionally, March will see ASBMB members return to Capitol Hill, carrying a defined agenda to present to Congress in person. By collectively continuing to stress the benefits of investment in research, scientists can, like the English at the Battle of Agincourt, prevail when the situation looks its gloomiest.


1. National Science Board (2010) Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. National Science Foundation (NSB 10-01), Arlington, VA.
2. McGarvey, W. E., Morris, P., Li, X., Li, J., Probus, M., Cissel, M., and Haak, L. L. (2008) How many scientists do the NIH Support? Improving estimates of the workforce. NIH Analysis Report 1 – 23.

Geoffrey Hunt ( is the ASBMB science policy fellow.

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