A Night at the Federal Budgetary Opera

The Grand Federal Budget Opera has a bigger cast but none of the pizzazz of “Aida.” Cincinnati Opera’s 2007 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” The Grand Federal Budget Opera has a bigger cast but none of the pizzazz of “Aida.” Cincinnati Opera’s 2007 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” Photo credit: Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong

We have not seen a "normal" federal budget process in Washington in years. Instead we have substituted what could be the perfect libretto for a grand opera featuring tenors, baritones and sopranos, singing arias of high drama that soar through crisis after crisis with last second rescues, magic “continuing” resolutions that last forever, and a “curse” in which the federal government is doomed to wander from one near shutdown to the next. One element in this libretto that had not changed until this year was the timing of the President’s budget, which even in these normal/abnormal times was presented to Congress the first week of February.  The presidential budget is considered the statement of the Executive Branch about where it will put emphasis in the upcoming year. The President’s budget is known inside the Beltway as dead on arrival, since Congress is quick to remind the President of the United States that the Legislative Branch, not the President, holds the purse strings. Members of Congress have started orchestrating their own budget, returned to their own priorities, and featuring an entertaining legislative minuet.

This year, the budget opera is odder and, potentially, more dramatic. The President’s budget was released very late—April 10—after Congress had already started on its own version, so that  the President’s budget this year may have been dead on departure.  In fact, both the House and the Senate had already passed their budget resolutions, which are priority statements to guide appropriators in writing spending bills.

Yet the President’s budget is always important because it gives a sense of where the Administration is putting the accent for spending. This year the Administration showed its enthusiasm for science, well before the curtain went up on the budget opera. In a memorable speech1,, the President announced a new project, the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, with the goal of mapping the human brain to find cures for devastating neurological and psychiatric diseases. I thought it was wonderful to hear the President speaking of basic neuroscience research as a top national priority during hard financial times, even when there were so many other thorny national needs that he could have singled out. The verdict on the BRAIN project, though, is still out since we know very little about the details, and most of all, the details surrounding the project’s feasibility and timeline. In addition, the rhetorical parallels with the human genome project did not seem very accurate. At any rate, it was very energizing to see science getting so much attention from the White House a week before the budget announcement.

Once the curtain went up on the President’s budget, I noted the accent on science, which I applauded. The President proposes an increase of $470 million for NIH from fiscal year 2012. The NSF sees a significant increase of $593 million as a commitment to strengthen R&D, following the “America Competes Act” and also the R&D portion of the Department of Energy budget, which would be strengthened along with those of several other science agencies.

I am not a budget analyst but I have followed the federal budget process for several years. Once the budget overture was played, I quietly started my back of the envelope calculations to understand what these numbers in the proposed budget mean.

I was surprised to see that numbers in the President’s budget do not take into consideration the sequestration cuts, which are now written into law.  So, unfortunately I needed to subtract sequestration cuts from the numbers announced. Once I’d done this, my calculations showed significant reductions to the NIH budget, not increases. There is no new money.

Here is my math for the NIH figures. In 2012, the NIH received a budget authority for $30.8 billion, which was then cut by $1.5 billion in March of 2013 because of the infamous sequestration, leaving the NIH budget at $29.3 billion. Now, the President’s budget proposes an increase of $470 million for 2014, which in part offsets sequestrations (great thing to do), but unfortunately not completely, leaving the proposed 2014 budget for NIH at $29.8 billion, or ~$1 billion less than 2012. In other words, our scientific community depending on NIH grants will have ~$1 billion less in 2014 than in 2012, according to budget figures that include sequestration. What the Administration is proposing in its budget is essentially a mitigation of sequestration, according to its priorities. Science fortunately has a high priority there but we are still deep in the red when other countries are instead buttressing their investments in research.

It is harder to work out calculations that include sequestration for each NIH Institute since the information of how these are applied within the different NIH components was not made public. The White House says that these figures will be available in a month. However, you can see the numbers in the budget (sans sequestration computed) for each NIH Institute and Center in the table which I report here (See Figure 1 below) that comes from the President’s Budget. You may notice reductions to NIGMS, which could be because of cuts to the Center Grants Program but they may show a notable $38 million increase for R01s. Also, there seems to be an increase for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) of ~$90 million from 2012. Remember, no sequestration is computed in these numbers; we’ll see in a month how sequestration is applied to the different NIH components.

These are the numbers for the President’s budget request but they can change for a wide variety of reasons, because of incoming transfers from other parts of the federal budget, or for transfer to other parts of the federal budget authorities. Since the NIH is one of the largest budgets within the Labor-HHS bill, it will be important to watch carefully for transfers, which could hurt the pool of money set aside for biomedical research, if other priorities emerge.

So, is this budget good new news or bad news? I think it is good news that the President's budget made the effort to communicate science as a priority, especially for biomedical research. Unfortunately, the numbers because of sequestration only marginally offset the damage inflicted by this horrendous piece of legislation, which was never designed to come into effect.

BUDGET-2014-APP-1-10 Details-20 (Click to Enlarge)
Figure 1— Distribution of Budget Authority and Outlays by
Account, page 436, FY14, Budget of U.S. Government,
for full citation, see Note 3.
We need to keep up our strong advocacy activities at ASCB, under the leadership of Doug Koshland and our indefatigable policy wonk Kevin Wilson. We need to work to repeal sequestration in research budgets so that we can stop eating our seed corn while throwing away 5%—the value of NIH sequestration—of those seeds. Innovation is the way out of the financial hole, not lack thereof. Let's roll up our sleeves and work together, after all in life, as in opera: It ain't over until the fat lady sings! The voice of science cannot afford to be drowned out in these discordant times.

  1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/04/02/remarks-president-brain-initiative-and-american-innovation
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJuxLDRsSQc&feature=youtu.be
  3. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action?collectionCode=BUDGET&browsePath=Fiscal+Year+2014&searchPath=Fiscal+Year+2014&leafLevelBrowse=false&isCollapsed=false&isOpen=true&packageid=BUDGET-2014-FCS&ycord=1565
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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