Budget Battles Keep Agencies Guessing
By ANNIE LOWREY
WASHINGTON — The collision of the $1 trillion in budget cuts known as sequestration and the breakdown of the normal budgeting process is creating headaches not just for Washington but also for a vast web of offices dependent on federal financing. Many have been left uncertain as to how much money — if any — they will have to spend in the year ahead.
“I don’t want to throw darts or rocks at anybody,” said Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, at the National Governors Association convention last month in Milwaukee, venting his frustration over the budget uncertainty. “I just want to know what the hell the numbers are.”
The budget woes are afflicting, among others, state governments, American Indian tribes, military contractors and cancer research laboratories. Budget experts said that the short-term concerns over next year’s dollar figures were already hampering long-term planning and making government officials hesitant to commit to big projects or to hire needed employees.
“You’re eating away little by little at the infrastructure and effectiveness of government,” said Philip Joyce, a professor at the University of Maryland.
In an interview, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, called 2013 the “darkest ever” year for the agency, whose budget is at its lowest inflation-adjusted appropriations level in more than a decade. The agency has been awarding grants to an increasingly smaller sliver of applicants as well.
The stopgap measures that have kept the government running have further hobbled the agency, he added. “Continuing resolutions discourage you from trying something new and bold,” he said. “You’re supposed to tread water. And science is very badly served by that tread-water message.”
One researcher who said he had felt the impact of the budget wars is Steven Salzberg, the director of the Center for Computational Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a lauded biomedical researcher. Mr. Salzberg said that he had received about 20 percent less in federal funding than his peers had recommended for his work on the biological underpinnings of cancer and other diseases.
“Less science is getting done,” he said. “That means cures won’t emerge. Five years from now, when your aunt gets cancer and you can’t do anything for her, people won’t stop and think, ‘Jesus, if we only hadn’t had the sequester!’ "