The US government could run out of money as early as next week if Washington DC lawmakers fail to reach an agreement to raise the federal debt limit. If the worst happened, economists warn, it would be the first time in history that the government failed to repay its loans, and it could plunge the country – and possibly the world – into financial turmoil. A decade of research and innovation funding also hangs in the balance, as politicians haggle over government spending, and many science advocates fear budget cuts are inevitable.
“I’ve come to terms with the reality that regardless of the deal, there will be a decrease in discretionary funding” next year, says Joanne Carney, government relations manager for the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Washington DC. This, she adds, means there will be less funding for research and development (R&D). Discretionary funding is money that the US Congress allocates, during the annual appropriations process, between federal science and other agencies and programs.
The standoff between President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Republicans hinges on the “debt ceiling”, a limit imposed by Congress on the amount the US government can raise by issuing bonds and using other financial instruments to cover its expenses (the United States currently spends more money than it takes in taxes). As it stands, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen declared June 1 a “hard deadline”, saying the nation could default on its debt repayments if the cap isn’t met. not picked up by then. Federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may also find themselves unable to make payments, such as those covering research grants and salaries of federal scientists.
Republicans, who control the US House of Representatives, are using the approaching deadline as leverage to try to push through spending cuts. In the House, they passed a bill proposing massive budget cuts that could limit government spending at all levels over the next decade, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. So far, the Biden administration and Democrats have delayed reaching a deal. Some argue that Biden should use his executive authority to avert the crisis by unilaterally expanding the government’s ability to borrow money.
No one knows precisely how the tightrope policy will play out, but history suggests the impacts — including those for American science — could be felt for years.
For many in Washington, the current showdown looks like a replay of events that occurred during former President Barack Obama’s first term in 2011, when Republicans used a looming debt ceiling deadline to try to rein in federal spending. for a period of almost a decade. “Frankly, this movie wasn’t great the first time around, and I think the sequel will be a lot worse,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, who heads the public affairs office of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), based in Rockville, Maryland.
Although in the years since Congress has repeatedly approved funding that exceeds spending limits set in 2011, the debt ceiling agreement has taken its toll. R&D funding has been slashed by about US$240 billion over the next nine years, according to Matt Hourihan, who analyzes science budgets for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington DC-based advocacy group. That’s equivalent to the amount of money needed to sustain the NIH — the world’s largest public biomedical funder — for five years at its current budget level.
“It’s a pretty big shortfall,” Hourihan says. It would have been worse if lawmakers had kept their original promises.
The spending cuts currently being sought by Republicans are even harsher: The bill passed last month would cut discretionary spending by more than $3.5 trillion over the next decade. Assuming Congress were to distribute these cuts evenly across agencies and programs, Hourihan says overall federal investments in science would be cut by about $442 billion through 2033, a 19% drop from a reference scenario in which scientific investments increase with inflation. And the cuts for science agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which fund about a quarter of federally funded basic university research in the United States, could be much greater if R&D spending defense are excluded from the ceilings. , as some legislators have proposed to do.
Push to cut spending comes less than a year after congressional enactment legislation authorizing a massive increase in federal spending on science and innovation, including a doubling of the NSF budget through 2027. This legislation, called the CHIPS and Science Act, won bipartisan support due to growing concern over economic and scientific competition with China. “We’re still in a situation where we can’t seem to back up our rhetoric with the kind of investments we were hoping for,” Hourihan says.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are still working through the usual appropriations process for fiscal year 2024, with Republicans seeking to cut federal spending to levels enacted in 2022. If those cuts were spread evenly across all discretionary programs, federal science investments would drop from 20 to 22. % in 2024, according to FASEB.
One possibility is that Republicans and Biden reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling without resolving questions about 2024 spending levels. In such a scenario, the fallback position for both parties later this year could be a continuing resolution that keeps 2024 funding at 2023 levels, Zeitzer said.
“It’s still better than straight cuts, but it’s not great for the search business,” says Zeitzer. “We are holding our breath.”
This article is reproduced with permission and has been first post May 22, 2023.