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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Huffington Post: Sequestration cuts to NIH budget will usher in ‘dark age of science’

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Beltway Confidential,Health,Sean Higgins,Federal Budget,Analysis,Budgets and Deficits

Huffington Post writer Sam Stein argued in a lengthy story about the National Institutes of Health that “Sequestration ushers in dark age of science in America.”

By “dark age” he meant substantially higher in inflation adjusted terms than during the Clinton administration and roughly the same as the Bush administration, which included unprecedented expansions from the Clinton years.

So, no, it is not exactly reasonable to expect scientists to abandon cancer research and AIDS cures and instead to return to trying to turn lead into gold and exploring the curative powers of leeches.

Here’s how Stein sums up the budget situation:

In January 2002, President George W. Bush unveiled a five-year budget proposal that called for a doubling in NIH funding. It was an unprecedented show of commitment to the scientific community that promised 36,000 new projects and major breakthroughs in medical research.

In many ways, it proved to be a high-water mark. By 2007, NIH funding had jumped to $29.2 billion, a massive increase from its $20.4 billion level at the start of Bush’s presidency. By the time President Barack Obama took office, it had gone up to $30.8 billion. The 2009 stimulus package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act put a significant amount of money behind scientific research as well. But under sequestration, many of those gains were lost. This year, the agency’s budget has gone back down to $29.1 billion.

Stein notes that the scientists concede:  ”[T]he NIH’s budget remains large at $29 billion. But without more investment, the nation’s role as an international leader in scientific research is at risk.”

Let’s view this in context: Sequestration will reduce the NIH’s budget to about one percent below where it was at the end of the Bush administration.  That was after the budget had increased by $9.1 billion over the previous eight years, an expansion that increased it by nearly a half. That is your “dark ages?”

Consider this: In 2000, the final full year of the Clinton presidency, the NIH budget was $17.8 billion, which translates into about $24 billion in 2013 dollars, according to the inflation calculator on the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the post-sequestration budget for 2013 is more than 20 percent higher than that inflation-adjusted number. If America is entering a dark age of science, then the Clinton administration must have represented the Cro-Magnon Era.

It should be noted that even in the Bush years when the NIH’s budget was skyrocketing, liberal pundits were claiming Bush Republicans were engaged in a “war on science.” One of the main arguments then was that the Republicans were not giving enough funding to research.

In short, no matter what the budget situation, the recipients of federal grants never seem to say they are receiving a sufficient number of taxpayer dollars. Funny thing, that.

The usual liberal argument of “well, why can’t they cut the Pentagon’s budget?” falls flat here because that is being cut too. And there is plenty to cut there as well.

UPDATE: Stein responded via Twitter, saying: “fair points. i’d note i based my piece on conversations with 2 dozen science and academic officials. not just budget #s.” He added: “also, have to factor in the cost of doing science between the 90s and now. machines alone are incredibly more expensive.”

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