Spirit of Compromise Wins the Day, But Government Battles Damaging Science

October 18, 2013

by Paula Skedsvold  

On Wednesday, the nation – perhaps the world – breathed a sigh of relief when Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Majority Leader, and Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader, took to the Senate floor to say that an agreement had been reached to re-open the federal government and avoid defaulting on the nation’s financial obligations. 

Senator Reid stated that a “spirit of compromise” had “taken root in the Senate,” paving the way for an end to the stalemate that has paralyzed much of Washington, DC and, in turn, communities across the country.  The Senate plan will fund the government at current levels through January 15, 2014, and suspend the debt limit to February 7, 2014.  Leaders also agreed to a budget conference to develop a long-term solution to address the nation’s fiscal challenges and issue a report on how to do so by Dec. 13, 2013.

The agreement, while crucial, puts front and center the debates on some of the key issues that divide the parties. The budget resolutions previously passed by the House and Senate highlight the disparate views on how to resolve the fiscal issues facing the country, both in terms of spending levels and paths to get there. In addition, the budget conference will inevitably include discussions about sequestration -- whether the cuts can be rolled back and if so, what alternatives exist for finding the right balance of cuts and revenues.

Setting the stage for the upcoming talks, Senator McConnell (R-KY), while on the Senate floor to announce the new deal, made clear his support for the Budget Control Act (BCA), the deal that set caps on the federal budget for a decade and initiated the sequestration cuts, stating that it needs to be “preserved.” The BCA requires another reduction in discretionary spending of 2% in FY 2014. 

Unfortunately, the lack of a mutual agreement on a “grand bargain” to address the nation’s debt and deficits may continue to force the crisis-to-crisis deal-making that has come to dominate Congress—unless a new spirit of compromise has indeed been reached. The short-term focus is incredibly damaging government programs and especially damaging to science. 

Alan Leshner, PhD (National Science Board member and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), testified late last week before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that the government shutdown, coming on the heels of sequestration and federal science budgets that were in decline prior to sequestration, were dealing a “serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise.” 

In a blogpost written just before the government shutdown, NIH leaders lamented, “After 10 years of essentially flat budgets eroded by the effects of inflation, and now precipitously worsened by the impact of sequestration…, NIH’s purchasing power has been cut by almost 25% compared to a decade ago.” 

During the government shutdown, science agencies have been unable to issue new grants or contracts, and according to the journal Science, countless ongoing research projects have been disrupted. Had the Senate not reached a compromise or the House balked at the deal, some research projects currently funded by NSF and other science agencies would have been shuttered within weeks, losing data and money already invested.

These cuts and the continued uncertainty are “a growing threat to the federal research enterprise,” Leshner told the Senate Committee. “Scientific research thrives best when it can rely on steady and sustained growth across all disciplines, “ said Leshner. 

AAAS estimates that from FY 2010 to 2013, federal R&D expenditures dropped by 16.3 percent, “the fastest decline over any three-year period since the end of the Space Race.” 

Congress must use this opportunity to reach across the aisle, find common ground, and identify a bipartisan solution to address the nation’s long-term fiscal issues.  The budget conference provides a window for doing so. If an agreement on a comprehensive, long-term package can be reached, government agencies, universities, and scientists will be able to plan again, and that benefits the entire nation.