In 2011, the federal government faced a crisis in rapid spending with the budget. Following the 2008 Financial Crisis, several initiatives went into effect to stimulate the economy and put the American worker back to work. However, because of this rapid expansion in federal spending, the federal deficit was predicted to reach $1.5 trillion in 2011. As a result, the Budget Control Act, a version of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, was put into place. The Budget Control Act placed a cap on discretionary funding for 10 years to rein in the deficit. Since the defense, and non-defense, programs are under the discretionary portion of the federal budget, both would face yearly reductions to keep the deficit down to manageable levels. While this was designed as a way for Congress to agree upon meaningful government reform, both political parties failed to find a compromise. Each year, the discretionary budget would be decreased by a certain percentage, 7-10% for military and 5-8% for non-defense programs, to reduce the federal deficit by over $1.2 trillion.
What does this mean for federal science? Each year, non-defense programs, like the Department of Energy, National Aeronautical Space Agency, National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, would be subject to cuts that could harm essential programs. Since the sequestration went into effect, federal R&D spending decreased from ~$165 billion to ~$147 billion. These cuts have led to staff reductions, decreased funds for programs, and limited funding available for grant programs. The Budget Control Act arrived at a vital moment where the United States needs to remain committed to investing in its Research Enterprise. Countries like Germany, South Korea, and China are investing heavily in their R&D infrastructure.
China has been heavily invested in building its R&D enterprise. China has not only been investing in its national sciences, it is also the world’s largest producer of undergraduate degrees in STEM related fields. The United States, the epicenter of scientific research, and scientific literature, could find itself being outperformed in scientific output in the coming years.
In order to maintain the United States competitive ability to product scientific discoveries, and technologies, the federal government will need to undergo a massive shift in priorities. Congress will need to reach bipartisan consensus to remove the budget caps on federal scientific funds to allow rapid growth of the federal scientific enterprise. The United States must also invest in the next generation of STEM workers by strengthening the classroom to workplace pipeline. This will involve more financial incentives for students to pursue STEM courses, provide universities with federal loans to enhance their science divisions, and facilitate the cooperation of the private sector to build successful Public-Private Partnerships. These are by no means the final list but it does represent a starting point for federal lawmakers to change the investment that we make in the federal sciences. Like the Space Race with the Soviet Union, the United States will need to compete with China to shape the future of the scientific research community.
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