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Science. Communication. Community.

Saving science: Hoping for a political miracle

The sequester is no meteor crashing into a Russian city, but for science and science communication, it sure might feel that way.

By Kelly Tyrrell

Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

It was supposed to be so awful no one would let it happen.

It was sort of like bargaining with yourself, saying unless you get those experiments done, not only would you miss happy hour with your lab, you would miss a whole month’s worth of happy hours AND spend an extra hour each day reading papers.

Imposing terrible consequences for failure to act was to be motivation for action.

At least, that’s what President Obama and Congress told themselves when they passed the Budget Control Act in August 2011 as incentive to reach a bipartisan deficit reduction deal.

The plan was to avoid defaulting on the country’s debt by raising the debt ceiling and in exchange, Democrats and Republicans would have to agree on a way to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years. The sequester was put into place to make sure they came up with a plan.

Except, they didn’t, and the consequences are way worse than giving up happy hour.

Both sides volleyed but no one scored. The clock ticked, deadlines were pushed back, but as of March 1, 2013, the sequester reigns. The terrible consequences have become reality.

the-automatic-sequester_511458b3bde09This year, it will begin imposing spending cuts across the board at federal agencies, both domestic and defense.

Some of the largest federal science programs in the United States will lose millions, if not billions of dollars in this effort to balance the books.

The country avoided default, but at what price to progress, education, knowledge, global competition and to future generations of would-be scientists, conservationists, astronauts, engineers, mathematicians and more?

There is no doubt science and research will be impacted, affecting the number of jobs and the number and types of funded projects. It could slow progress in our ability to understand our universe, treat diseases and develop innovative technologies.

It will impact who travels to and attends scientific conferences and meetings, where information leaves the labs and servers and is spread to hundreds if not thousands of others, inspiring eager students and fostering new ideas.

And it will also impact all the “non-scientists” who benefit from the scientific world, and the potential future scientists in this country.

In a startling announcement last week, NASA said it will be ceasing all outreach and communications as a result of the sequester:

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.

The scope comprises activities intended to communicate, connect with, and engage a wide and diverse set of audiences to raise awareness and involvement in NASA, its goals, missions and programs, and to develop an appreciation for, exposure to, and involvement in STEM. Audiences include employees, partners, educators, students, and members of the general public.

This means, no new web or social media sites, programs and events, video and multimedia products, speeches and presentations, traveling exhibits and “any other activity whose goal is to reach out to external and internal stakeholders and the public concerning NASA, its programs, and activities.”

Considering the ability of Universe Today publisher, Fraser Cain, to turn a room full of hardened journalists and scientists into sobbing puddles of mush with his Google+ Star Party video, this loss will have a real impact.

At the same time, the National Park Service — whose lands millions visit each year to find inspiration and to connect with the natural world — is expecting to furlough thousands of workers for nearly two days each month. Others may not have jobs at all. Administrators will be forced to close or reduce service at parks and other lands and shutter 128 wildlife refuges.

And some of our country’s youth will find themselves on a potentially different career track, as NPS will not be able to hire as many student employees as in years past. The director of NPS addresses that reality in a memo to its retirees:

Our inability to hire students and enter into cooperative agreements will have lasting impacts as these young people are forced to find work elsewhere and ultimately may make different career choices.

University Peak, Eastern Sierra Nevada//Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

University Peak, Eastern Sierra Nevada//Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

Here is a breakdown of some of the cuts to agencies responsible for conducting, funding or promoting science, as laid out in an Office of Management and Budget report to Congress on March 1 of this year. Many are still reeling and figuring out what their operations will look like under such constraints:

  • National Institutes of Health cut by $1.6 billion

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut by $303 million

  • Food and Drug Administration cut by $209 million

  • National Park Service cut by $153 million

  • Environmental Protection Agency cut by $465 million

  • National Science Foundation cut by $361 million

  • NASA cut by $896 million

The sequester is no meteor crashing into a Russian city, but for science and science communication, it sure might feel that way.

Though compromise has yet to be reached — philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans continue to be an obstacle — it’s possible some of the pain of the sequester could be eased as legislators work to craft a new budget.

And, unlike in science, we can hope for a political miracle.

To read more about the sequester, check out these informative Washington Post Summaries: here and here.


About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

2 comments on “Saving science: Hoping for a political miracle

  1. jstoll01
    March 28, 2013

    Great post! This also (sadly) reminds me of the shortsighted approach to spending cuts in industry — when profits sink, often the R&D team is laid off first and the sales force, last. It’s hard to relay the message that if you want to stay on top in the future, you have to fund the research now.

    There are certainly some scary times ahead, but also, with any struggle comes opportunity. Now is the time for researchers to boost their efficiency and sharpen their skills, and for communicators (like us) to stress the importance of their work!

  2. Mark
    March 28, 2013

    Ugh, I think I’d rather have the meteorite! This is just depressing. I’ve heard predictions of a “science crash” – a feedback loop caused by less funding of academic and government science, which causes scientific supply companies to struggle, which causes industry science to suffer, resulting in one big crash when no one can afford to risk a career in science any more.

    I hope that this doesn’t become a reality! I’m already scared enough to try and make any sort of career related to science.

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2013 by in Policy, space, Uncategorized.
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