For over a year, the possibility of severe, across-the-board budget cuts (the ‘sequester’) has been known. But only recently (since September, as far as I can tell) have science policy agencies and advocates said much about the situation. A recent briefing on the topic organized by AAAS reflects the tenor of the conversation. A sample quote:
“Funding cuts may also result in reduction of postdoctoral and graduate student appointments at our national laboratories,” said Orlando Auciello, Endowed Chair Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. More broadly, that would jeopardize “the training and the supply of the next generation of future scientists and engineers who can make a tremendous impact in the future economy of the United States.”
The quote mentions budget cuts rather than a lack of budget increases. But the arguments used in these different circumstances are similar. Science and technology have notable impacts on the nation and its economy, so we should get more money.
Now, it’s possible that encouraging preparations for bad budgetary times makes for bad advocacy. That offering guidance for grantees and funded institutions on how to deal with fewer and smaller grants somehow makes it harder to argue for more money later. But it’s hard for me not to see a little head-in-the-sand thinking. For instance, read this quote from an interview with National Cancer Institute (and former National Institutes of Health) Director Harold Varmus in September.
“On the “sequestration,” or looming, across-the-board federal budget cuts if Congress and the Obama Administration can’t agree on how to cut the deficit: “I don’t like it and I assume it won’t happen.” Varmus said that although NCI’s $5 billion budget would be cut by 8%, because so much funding is set aside for ongoing grants, the cut could slash by 40% the funds available for new and competing grants.”
At some level that attitude strikes me as irresponsible. Given the recent budget passing difficulties of Congress, I would hope that federal agencies are taking steps to be better prepared for instances where the planned budget increases don’t materialize with the new Fiscal Year, but some months later.
Of course, if they’re doing this and not telling anyone, fine. But it does little for my confidence (and perhaps the confidence of others?) to see a lot of blinders-on thinking. Maybe if science policy didn’t focus so much on the budget, it could actually be better prepared for when the budgets don’t come out as planned (which seems to be the new normal).