Whether you're developing a cure for cancer, or dreaming up solutions to put a human on Mars, there's a chance that you could be out of a job next year.
I. Automatic Cuts Loom
That's the grim reality reported by both a 394-page report from the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and a separate, independent analysis by the journal Nature's News Blog. The reports differ a bit on how much spending will be cut -- but both agree it will be in the billions.
The cuts come due, in part, to a stalemate between the two political parties during an election year. Both sides seemingly agree that cuts need to be made somewhere, with the annual budget deficit currently at $1.33T USD.
Democrats tend to focus their efforts on cutting defense department spending, while avoiding cuts to education and only committing to minor reform on entitlements (welfare, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, etc.). Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for an increase in federal defense spending coupled with sweeping cuts to education and entitlements.
Both sides argue that in the short-term deficit spending is acceptable, but that in the future the deficit should be eliminated.
It's unclear whether either side's plan would manage to "balance" the budget. But it is clear both sides refuse to meet at a negotiating table.
As a result, there will be only weeks to cut a deal before a series of across-the-board automatic cuts of $1.2T USD kick in. Congress installed those cuts when it raised the debt ceiling as a failsafe in case a compromise on the 2013 budget could not be reached (in retrospect a pretty likely scenario, given the election year tensions).
Comment: In other words, automatic cuts were built in by design so as to be implemented in a way where nobody would have to accept any responsibility. 'We're destroying the support systems for the most vulnerable in society and eroding the prospects for the future (whilst continuing to pour billions into military expansion), but hey, Its not our fault!'
II. Who Gets Cut, and How Much?
One of the biggest cuts will be to U.S. Department of Defense spending, at $54.7B USD (a 9.7 percent reduction to the agency budget). That cut will likely impact funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as funding for weapons research at private contractors.
Billions will also be cut from non-defense research agencies.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a key funder of U.S. medical research, will lose $2.5B USD in funding. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will take a $464M USD hit to non-defense research. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will cut $318M USD in salary and expenses.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget is another big loser. It loses $417M for science research, $346M for space missions, $309M for exploration, and $246M for cross agency support. Overall the cuts total $1.3B USD.
source]. Today the budget is expected to dip to less than a fifth of that, at $17.77B USD (2012 dollars).
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) loses $88M USD for surveys and research.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes a $65M USD hit to its research department, which funds various biology and climatology studies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) loses $217M USD in funding for facilities and research, including climatology studies.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) takes a $400M USD hit to research funding.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) -- which sponsors all sorts of university research projects -- will lose $463M USD in grant money, plus another $167M cut to funding for new scientific equipment. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would take a $62M USD hit to research and facilities.
III. The Election Effect
Current U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed boosting the overall science budget. Under his plan most agencies would see modest boosts, while NASA would see a smaller cut of $164M USD given the $1.3B USD in cuts the automatic budget cuts would institute.
The President's plan calls for reducing the deficit to $901B USD -- roughly a 1/3rd reduction not adjusting for Producer Price Index (PPI). It calls for further reduction to $575B USD by 2018 -- roughly a 57 percent cut from 2012's deficit (not adjusting for PPI).
It's unclear exactly where Mitt Romney stands on the issue of funding for science agencies, although he has made it clear that he wants to increase funding for defense research.
Thus whether U.S. science gets layoffs or a boost hangs not only on who is elected, but whether they can draw a compromise with their rival party to avoid the mandatory cuts.