Nature | Editorial
Dont hide the decline
US scientists should not be placated by the flat
budget myth. Funds are decreasing, and the situation will get worse.
11 March 2014
For US researchers, the annual unveiling of the
presidential budget request can be a time of both
hope and trepidation. But after last years
fiscal battles with Congress, complete with an
embarrassing government shutdown and painful
across-the-board spending cuts, it was always
clear that this year there would be little to celebrate.
In that atmosphere, the unveiling on 4 March of
President Barack Obamas US$3.9-trillion
budgetary vision for fiscal year 2015 brought
both disappointment and a sigh of relief. In one
sense, the proposal was optimistic: it exceeded
congressional spending limits by $56 billion, and
there were few deep cuts for science. But it
leaves the budgets of major scientific funders,
such as the US National Institutes of Health
(NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and
the research efforts at the Department of Energy,
essentially flat (see
Amid a sluggish economy and zealous calls to
tighten federal purse strings, the prevailing
wisdom is often to be grateful for a flat budget.
Things could be worse. But those projects that
stand to be gutted such as the Stratospheric
Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an
airborne observatory funded largely by NASA,
which would have its budget slashed from $84
million to $12 million stand as painful
reminders that a flat budget is not something to
celebrate. The proposed $200-million boost to
bring the NIHs budget to $30.2 billion is
paltry, but even worse is the $1.3-billion cut
that could be in store for the Department of
Health and Human Services, the NIHs parent agency.
What is more, inflation does not stand still for
flat budgets. Overall spending on research and
development would increase by 1.2% in 2015 if
Obama has his way. But the rate of inflation that
year is expected to be 1.7%. The outlook is worse
for biomedical research here, inflation is
projected to rise by 2.2% in 2015, according to
the Department of Health and Human Services
Biomedical Research and Development Price Index.
The 0.7% budgetary bump that Obama has requested will not keep pace.
Indeed, flat budgets such as those proposed
last week have steadily eroded the NIHs coffers
over the past decade. Controlling for inflation,
the NIHs budget shrank by 10% between 2004 and
2014, according to the American Association for
the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. The
real decline is even steeper when the rate of
biomedical inflation is taken into account.
Rather than a relief, apparently flat budgets
are a sure sign that competition for funds will grow still further.
A similar trend is emerging for research and
development overall: federal spending on research
and development in 2014 is 15.8% lower than in
2010 when inflation is considered.
Greener pastures are nowhere in sight. The
presidents request was sent to Congress, which
will produce a plan of its own. Included in
Obamas request is a proposed $56-billion
Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative that
would add $5.3 billion to the nations research
and development coffers. But there is little
reason to hope that the initiative will make it
through a US Congress determined to rein in
spending, opposed to raising taxes and not
generally known for a willingness to compromise.
These are, after all, the same legislators who in
October shut down the government for 16 days and
allowed across-the-board spending cuts of 5% last
year. Science suffered as a result: the NSF
awarded 690 fewer grants in 2013 than the
previous year, according to figures released last
week by the Government Accountability Office. The
NIH cut its grants by 750. The White Houses
budget proposal makes it clear: there will be no
compensation for these lost opportunities.
Meanwhile, the economic strain on the country is
immense. Mandatory spending obligations on
retirement and health-care programmes, for
example are soaring, squeezing discretionary
spending on other worthy areas, including
research. As a result, discretionary programmes
are battling over slices of a rapidly shrinking
pie: in 2010, discretionary funds were 39% of the
budget; in 2015, they will be 30%.
This means that the fight will only be more
intense in years to come. Rather than a relief,
apparently flat budgets are a sure sign that
competition for funds will grow still further.
And that things will get worse before they get better.
(13 March 2014)