Progress in scientific research depends on reliable and consistent funding. One of the worst things that can happen to federally funded research programs is uncertainty over funding levels or even worse, a government shutdown. In order to try and prevent such an event from occurring, we are asking you to contact your local representatives and ask them to make sure passing the budgets for research is completed. It is quick and easy to contact your local representative by using our simple email contact tool. From discussions with legislators, each personal email sent is generally taken as the voice of 50 constituents and that around 100 emails can sway policy decisions, particularly if they all occur within a short time-frame. Science funding has been stagnating for decades and is only just showing a glimmer of recovery. It is important we don’t let the recent improvements be abolished by party politics.
Since 2004 government backed funding in the US has decreased by nearly 30%, continuing a trend seen for the last 40 years (see Figure). Fewer grants are being awarded, researchers are being laid off, and students entering the system are struggling to pursue a career in academic research, with fewer than 8% of PhD students becoming tenure-track faculty. Fortunately, last year research saw a 7% increase in the federal budget, reversing the trend of previous years. This year’s appropriations committees have also recommended further, yet more conservative, increases to keep pace with inflation. Yet all this progress will be to waste if the House, Senate, and Executive Office cannot come to a compromise to pass each appropriations bill into law.
Unfortunately, the complexity of the budget process (see box at end of article) makes the future of these appropriations bills uncertain. Research is often caught in the crossfire of partisan policy battles, as has already been seen earlier this year when funding for fighting the Zika virus, which was already attached to a transportation and veterans package, was delayed through arguments over Planned Parenthood, the Affordable Care Act and confederate flags.
The appropriations bills are currently at various stages of discussion in Congress. If agreements cannot be reached, then a government shutdown can occur as happened in 2013. There are worrying signs that this event might be a serious likelihood. Another shutdown could have serious effects on scientific research. The repercussions from the 2013 shutdown were devastating and wide-ranging, with hundreds of critically ill patients being turned away from potentially life-saving clinical trials, thousands of lab animals died, and many projects and grant funding decisions were delayed for months or years).
A government shutdown cannot be allowed to occur again. Please contact your local representative and demand that they work together with their colleagues to pass the appropriations bills. Stable funding for scientific research creates jobs and leads to new technologies. Lets make sure science, and the rest of the federal government, keeps working now and for the foreseeable future.
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Contributed by Dr. Peter Harvey, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biological Engineering at MIT.