Sequestration Round-up: Stories About Adverse Impacts Are Everywhere

NIH and its defenders speak out.

To summarize all the summaries you may have been reading: it looks as though the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration will likely go into effect on March 1. Senate Democrats will probably bring multiple bills to the floor next week that would cancel the cuts, but none of the bills appears palatable to the House leadership. Both houses of Congress would need to pass legislation in order to cancel or delay sequestration. But whether sequestration will remain in effect for a month, or for the rest of the year, is not known. That may depend on the public outcry — or lack of it — when the cuts hit.

This week stories about sequestration were all over all the news media. Amid stories about the negative impact of across-the-board cuts on air travel, civilian employees of the Department of Defense and the National Zoo (“sealquestration?”) were two important stories about the impact of cuts on federal science agencies.

U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, visited the National Institutes of Health on Feb. 20 to hear from Director Francis Collins how he anticipates that NIH will cope if sequestration goes into effect on March 1. Accounts of their news conference make clear that Sen. Mikulski expects the Senate to consider legislative alternatives next week, and hopes to persuade Senate Republicans to support them. Appropriations Committee bills will be negotiated before March 27 when the fiscal year 2013 Continuing Resolution, which now funds the government, will expire. Most observers expect that legislation to include a fix for sequestration, but how to develop a fix that will appeal to all sides poses real challenges.   

Elias Zerhouni, who served as NIH director under President George W. Bush, spoke to the Washington Post about the adverse consequences of sequestration. He said, "I don't want to sound dramatic, but it's not theoretical. People have crocodile tears for all the various types of cuts, but this kind of cut is damaging. It's not something that you can manage year to year. It's an investment. They cannot go up and down with the political winds.”

Most federal agencies have provided some information about how sequestration would affect their programs and missions. Many agencies sent letters to the Senate Appropriations Committee in response to a request for information on impacts. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget expects to provide more detailed information about impacts in the coming days.