Fiscal Cliff: The Next Big Challenge for Science

by Christina Pyrgaki

A version of this article appeared on The Incubator blog on February 14, 2013.

For the last 35 years, the University of Lake Superior has published a list of banished words—words in the English language that are deemed overused, misused, or useless. Topping the 2013 version1 was a term that no American has been able to escape in recent months: fiscal cliff.

While I agree that “fiscal cliff” has been overused, I do not know if it is fair to call it misused or useless. The term paints a clear picture of an entire nation standing on the edge of a cliff, in grave danger of falling off with a single misstep. This analogy is not too far from the reality that the US faces, as our society truly is standing on a financial precipice.

Several articles published over the past year have described our ominous situation and have attempted to figure out how it all began. My favorite, posted in Forbes Magazine in November 20122, talks about the Congressional passing of the Budget Control Act of 20113, which dictates the automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending. Congress never really intended for this sequester4 to go into effect. It was meant more as a threat to coerce opposing parties to cooperate. But it looks as though the aforementioned parties, unable to find common ground in this contentious political landscape, must make good on that threat. Many government programs will feel the strain now that the sequester is going into effect—among them one area that is particularly dear to us here at The Rockefeller University: scientific research funding.

As shown in the graph above, key science funding sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will take a serious hit as a result of the sequester. According to the Office of Management and Budget5, the sequester would reduce the budgets of the NIH by $2.529 billion, the NSF by $586 million, and the Department of Energy Office of Science by $400 million.

NIH Director Francis Collins stated6 that these budget cuts would translate into about 2,300 fewer grants (which is approximately 5% of the new grants awarded by NIH in 2012), and is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sequester’s actual impact on scientific research. In addition to a reduction in new grant awards, funding levels of non-competing renewals will be lowered. In essence, the future of federally-funded biomedical research is in jeopardy.

These measures were supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2013; however, Congress and the White House reached a temporary deal, giving Congress until March 1, 2013 to further debate and negotiate. While some saw this postponement as a “pathetic punt,”7 others saw this delay as an opportunity to influence the decisions of elected officials with regard to which federal funds will be slashed and by how much. During the past few months, via blog posts, social media, and printed press, many scientists have focused on bringing attention to the detrimental effects of the sequester on scientific research, and the efforts to bring awareness to broad audiences have not tapered down. As a matter of fact, these efforts have intensified since the news of the sequester going into effect sunk the scientific community with apprehension on March 1. Under no circumstances, however, should this news lead us to passively accept what elected officials have in store for scientific research. We still have time to change the way the sequester will affect science, and both scientists and non-scientists need to take the duty of protecting science seriously!

As informed citizens, what can we do in the name of science research?

All Americans, and especially the scientists among them, should exercise their power as active members of society.

Aside from voting, citizens have the right and the obligation to voice their concerns and push for change when their livelihood is being threatened. When voices unite and amplify, there is a good chance of being heard. When you hire a contractor to redecorate your house, you do not stay out of the process and hope that he or she won’t decide to paint your living room hot pink. You supervise, and when you see hot pink paint, you tell the contractor that you disagree with his choices and you are not willing to live with them. Similarly, citizens should let elected officials know that they are not willing to live with these officials’ questionable decisions, and that they need to do the job for which they were hired: maintain the integrity of our society and protect the individuals that comprise it.

Every citizen and researcher should make a compelling case to his or her elected officials explaining why science funding should be protected. The website of the organization Research!America8 contains invaluable tools and instructions on how to contact and even meet with the people who have the power to shape the future of scientific research in this country. We all need to use these tools and make our voices heard, because in contrast to what you might believe, politicians listen to their voters. They have to. They do, after all, work for us!


2. Rick Ungar, “The Fiscal Cliff Explained,” Forbes Magazine November 10, 2012


4. See definition of sequestration in the glossary of political economy terms at


6. Paige Winfield Cunningham “nih Director Francis Collins: Medical research at risk,”, January 16, 2013.

7. Ruth Marcus “On the fiscal cliff, a no-big-deal deal,” The Washington Post, January 2, 2013.


April 2013