Last week, President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget rolled out their recommendations for the cuts for sequestration as was required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The cuts will be largely 8.2% across-the-board which may not sound like much, but translates into billions hacked from the scientific enterprise in this country. That would mean cuts of roughly $2.518 billion for National Institutes of Health (NIH); $469 million just from the research funding at National Science Foundation (NSF); Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science would get slashed by $400 million; cuts of $417 million to NASA’s research budget; $257 million in total cuts for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); $58 million from the USDA’s Research and Education budget; and that is by no means a comprehensive list.
This funding is all categorized as Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) spending and these cuts will go into effect January 2, 2013 if an alternative agreement isn’t reached. NDD includes anything that requires an annual appropriation bill at the discretion of Congress and, as the name would suggest, isn’t covered under defense spending. In addition to non-defense funded research, NDD means education spending, child care, worker and food safety, national parks, border security, and food stamps, to name a few examples.
The defense industry is requesting exemption from sequestration. If granted, which is quite possible if Republicans get control of the Senate after the elections, NDD spending will bear the burden and budgets will be slashed by far more than 8.2% with projections putting it at closer to 20%. That means those numbers in the preceding paragraph will be substantially larger. NDD organizations are asking for sequestration to be cancelled and a better system of revenue generation with spending cuts to be implemented. Both sides agree that members of Congress on either side of the aisle must develop a better solution than sequestration.
NDD groups are advocating on Capitol Hill to try to get both sides of Congress to the table. However, they are also reaching out to their constituents to try to stimulate grass-roots movements to get them to be proactive in speaking out against sequestration and putting pressure on their members of Congress at a local level. There have not been many movements by the science community to bring attention to the incredible and irreparable damage these cuts would do to the research enterprise in this country not only for those currently employed, but for those coming up through the ranks of academia and others considering going into the sciences. Consider this a call to arms: your funding and that of future scientists may be in serious jeopardy!
Other groups have tried to bring attention to the value of federally funded research and the damage that massive budget cuts would have on their national scientific enterprise. Different approaches have included public funerals for science in Canada and “Science is Vital” rallies in England. Protestors there sang to the member of Parliament who proposed the big slashes in spending, “Hey, Osbourne, leave our geeks alone!" to the tune of Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall and “Hey Hey Osborne, we wanna know if you'll fund our work," to the tune of Bruce Channel's Hey! Baby. How about some “If you’ve got a problem, yo, we’ll solve it; check out my paper ‘cause my stats will resolve it; Science, science baby;” a la Vanilla Ice? Or maybe “Hey, I just wrote this, it may seem crazy, but here's my data, so fund me, maybe?” If the US swim team can do it, why can’t we? If you’ve got other, catchier ideas, I would love to hear them. Some critics have suggested this is not the best way to get attention. However, something a little cheeky and a little crazy does get attention, and getting it out there puts pressure on those who make the decisions. Perhaps more importantly, it makes a statement without being hostile. One idea might be science flash mobs near state capitols (Flashmob 101). There are probably plenty of grad students and undergrads available for such an undertaking.
There are a lot of different ways to emphasize the importance of funding basic research using low energy methods. Sometimes the value of things isn’t clear to members of Congress, and they may lack exposure to more broadly informed perspectives. The Golden Goose Awards, for example, shine a spotlight on research that may seems out in left field but has yielded tangible, meaningful impacts for others. The most frequently cited winner from the first round of awards involves jellyfish research which provided the source for green fluorescent protein (GFP) that is used in labs all over the world for every kind of therapeutic as well as basic research. Another approach is to highlight successful examples of small investments leading to big returns in job creation and fiscal growth; the NSF grant which initially supported Google is the perfect example. Another approach is highlighting serendipitous outcomes like the development of the Pap smear which has saved lives all over the world, but not because Dr. George Papanicolaou was trying to develop an assay for cervical cancer at the time. You can bring attention to these issues by writing an op-ed for your paper to get the story out and generate conversation. Consider even just writing a letter to your members of Congress talking about your own research and why what you work on is important. No matter what path you take, it isn’t enough to just stick one’s head in the sand because your own funding is locked down for the next couple of years.