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Austerity could slow scientific advances in the US

Research can be hurt for years by sequester cuts

WASHINGTON — One of the few things Republicans and Democrats have agreed on in recent years is that the government should be spending more on basic scientific research, the sort of research that has played a role in everything from mapping the human genome to laying the groundwork for the Internet.

‘‘Government funding for basic science has been declining for years,’’ Mitt Romney wrote in his 2010 book ‘‘No Apology.’’ ‘‘It needs to grow instead.’’

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In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama sounded a similar note: ‘‘Now is the time to reach a ­level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.’’

So it is notable that the exact opposite is about to occur. Because of budget pressures and looming sequester cuts, federal research and development spending could stagnate in the coming decade.

The National Institutes of Health’s budget is scheduled to drop 7.6 percent in the next five years.

Research programs in energy, agriculture, and defense will decline by similar amounts. NASA’s research budget is on pace to drop to its lowest level since 1988.

The automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday are expected to curtail services and jobs in an array of federal agencies, but most of the effects have yet to reach the broader public.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the cuts were causing delays in customs lines at airports including Los Angeles International and O'Hare International in Chicago.

But furloughs of flight controllers would not begin before April because the government is legally required to give notice to workers.

The Pentagon announced Monday that it would furlough thousands of military school teachers around the world and close commissaries an extra day each week.

As a result of the cuts in research spending, technology analysts and scientists are warning that the United States could soon lose its edge in scientific research and that the private sector won’t necessarily be able to pick up the slack.

‘‘If you look at total R&D growth, including the corporate and government side, the US is now at the low end,’’ said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. ‘‘We’re seeing other countries, from Germany to Korea to China, make much bigger bets. And if that persists for long enough, it’s going to have an impact.’’

Over the past decade, federal spending on research and development has grown in real terms, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (although it’s shrinking as a percentage of gross domestic product). That has been driven largely by Bush-era increases in defense and life-sciences spending:

In 2009, the federal government funded some 31 percent of all research and development in the country, with private firms and universities financing the rest.

The array of federal programs is staggering, from semiconductor work at the Pentagon to climate-change research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to clinical trials for cancer at NIH. About half of the spending here is ‘‘basic’’ research and half ‘‘applied’’ research.

Yet, as a recent report from ITIF explains, this landscape is set to shift now that Congress is putting strict limits on discretionary spending.

If sequester spending cuts take effect, total spending on research and development will drop to 2007 levels and grow slowly thereafter. Federal research and development spending will decline sharply as a share of GDP.

The key question is how much of government-induced innovation might have happened without government involvement. As Stanford’s Roger Noll explains in a National Bureau of Economic Research essay, economists are divided on this.

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