“Which would you rather have: more money or end of Sequestration?”

The title of this post was the last question, asked by Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), at the Senate Appropriations hearing Tuesday afternoon. It was a telling question and got to the root of the budgetary problems facing the Federal science agencies at this point in time: would it be better to have more (modest) funding right now, which will only be cut back when the paused Sequestration starts back up in two years; or would it be best to have lower numbers now but an end to Sequestration (meaning more certainty) to allow the agencies to plan? Mikulski was clear that they couldn’t have both, as she explicitly said that the committee would be following the Murray/Ryan Budget Agreement . After she made her question, the Senator did give the witnesses an out, saying “you may not want to answer that.”

For the most part, the witnesses answered that question by saying: more certainty. Director Collins pointed out that because of the Sequester NIH lost, taking into account inflation, about 10% of its budget. He said, “a stable predictable trajectory,” for the agency’s budget was a necessity. Director Prabhakar, in saying that she needed more certainty, pointed out that DARPA is not trying to grow significantly. That combined with an 8% Sequester cut and a 12% decline in recent years means that DARPA has been hit very hard. Secretary Moniz echoed both of those positions and said DOE needs certainty. The only person who said more funding would be best was Director Cordova; she made the point that we should, “do now what we can do now.” She illustrated that by pointing out the Foundation was not able to fund about 700 proposals and that impacted around 800 scientists. That answer also made the point that there is no good/right answer here.

As for the rest of the hearing, there was very little political posturing and ideologically based questions, and both sides of the aisle felt more had to be done to get money to scientists. In fact, the next day Director Holdren was quoted as calling the hearing, “nearly a love fest.” The only instances of anything that could be called an ideological statement was when Senator Shelby (R-AL), the highest ranked Republican on the committee, said in his opening statement, “if we cannot practice fiscal discipline today, we will pay a much higher price in the future,”? while pointing out that the committee can’t simply increase funding for these agencies (in his closing statement, Senator Shelby did say he was open to giving the science agencies “leeway” with their budgets). However, Senator Blunt (R-MO), a long time supporter of research at NIH, made the counterpoint, “is the health of our country discretionary?” Neither of these statements is a surprise, given the budgetary environment of Congress; but they do demonstrate the constraints that the committee is working with and what the science agencies have to work under.

The Democratic side mainly focused on specific areas that concerned them and their state specific constituents. However, one of the more interesting exchanges was between Senator Harkin (D-IA) and Director Collins of NIH, where the Senator pointed out that it was almost impossible to get private sector funding for the Genome Initiative until the early successes of the Federally backed science showed promise. Senator Harkin, speaking off the cuff, said that an “initial Federal investment of around $3.5B produced an estimated $900B market in return.” The implication was that this is an example that shows private money will follow only when the Federally backed basic research shows promise. Beyond that, Chairwoman Mikulski had many of the best points, such as when she said she “wanted to make sure they (American scientists) can do what they’re educated to do;” which is research.

On the whole, the hearing was positive. It showed that the Federal science agencies have a good reputation with Senate Appropriators (also demonstrated with the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee passing a bill favorable to NSF and NIST). Also, there are leaders in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who want to protect science in the budget process. This is an on-going process; the specter of Sequestration starting up again in two years is hanging over everyone. And Chairwoman Mikulski’s question is still sitting there: which would be more helpful, more money or an end to Sequestration?

“Which would you rather have: more money or end of Sequestration?”