Friday, March 1, 2013

Sequestration Day

Today, the spending cuts across the United States federal government start to take place in the well publicized process of sequestration.  My understanding is that the two political parties in control of the executive and legislative branches agreed that the United States budget needs an overhaul, disagreed on what budget priorities should be, and so agreed that they needed a stick to force them into some sort of agreement.  That stick was sequestration, an across the board spending reductions of approximately $85 billion in 2013. Between 2013 and 2021, sequestration is supposed to reduce national deficit by $1.2 trillion in spending and interest payments.  "Across the board" refers to the concept that spending reductions need to be evenly distributed at the "program, project, and activity level".  The National Park Service can't, for example, close down the Washington Monument while hiring new people in the Everglades.  Or maybe they can, I'm no sequestration expert.  But anyway, apparently the stick to force agreement was not threatening enough for either side.  And so Congress went home yesterday without reaching an agreement.  Side note: I don't understand why Congress doesn't have to work on Friday.  Are they starting sequestration-induced furloughs now?

So why am I writing about sequestration for a blog devoted to global water and sanitation issues?  Because reduced U.S. government spending under the sequestration impacts the research and development projects in the WASH sector.  First, there's cuts in foreign aid.  Approximately 5.3% cost reductions in foreign aid for FY2013, followed by a decade of reductions estimated at $50 billion.  $50 billion is, approximately, what the U.S. spends on total foreign aid every year.  Including diplomacy.  The money goes to $1.5 billion line item to support the USAID (big proponents of WASH funding), $7.9 billion for the Global Health Initiative, $470 million toward building resiliency in the face of Global Climate Change, and $1.3 billion in development in poorest countries.  Reduce those numbers by approximately 5% this year and you have an idea about international impacts of sequestration on foreign aid.

Second, there's cuts to U.S. science funding.  I've heard anecdotally that NIH and NSF, the top two research funding agencies  handle cuts differently.  The NIH attempts to keep the number of research grants consistent at the expense of the funding size of each grant.    I don't know if that's true.  But what I have seen is that the sequester means a reduction in NIH's budget of 5.1%, corresponding to approximately $1.6 billion.  That's huge.  That's over 3000 years of R01 grant funding (at approximately $500k per year).  I just divided those numbers, so that's probably an overestimate (no indirect costs, NIH admin support, etc.).  And also, NIH can't just cut R01 funding (remember the "across the boards" thing from earlier).  But you get the idea.  That's huge.  And NIH is the single largest source of global research and development funds, providing an estimated 62% of total global basic research and development.  That same link suggests the NIH is providing research funds to 90 countries around the world.  So a 5.1% reduction in NIH spending from sequestration will reduce total global health basic R&D by 3.1%.  Did I mention how huge this is?

I've heard (and just found this article that says) that the NSF keeps the size of the grants, and cuts the number of grants.  That article is estimating that NSF will award 1000 fewer grants under sequestration this year.  That's hundreds of projects and careers set back by lack of funding.

So I was hoping to write an in depth analysis about the impacts of sequestration on international WASH research, and instead provided a really rough overview.  But that's mostly because there remains a lot of uncertainty about what sequestration will mean.  In the meantime, if you are an American citizen, write your local representative asking them to get to work coming up with a more targeted approach to fixing the U.S. Budget mess.  They listen.  They might respond with a form letter that clearly misses the point of what you were trying to say.  But they listen.

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