Chemistry will feel the pinch

Key US science agencies that support chemists will see their budgets fall in fiscal year 2009 (FY09), which began on 1 October, after President Bush signed legislation that freezes funding at FY08 levels until 6 March 2009.

The freeze actually represents a cut for agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, because it maintains FY08 levels without including the extra $400 million in emergency funds that the agencies received back in June.

The bill, a so-called ’continuing resolution’ (CR), was required after Congress failed to pass various FY09 spending allowance bills on time - deciding to wait until after the November presidential elections. 

"’We are in a period of belt tightening’" - Richard Zare, Stanford University

The American Chemical Society is now joining academics in the field to warn that the outlook is discouraging for chemistry and for science overall. There is concern that new grant competitions will become smaller, and continuing grants will be funded at lower than requested amounts. 

’We are in a period of belt tightening,’ Richard Zare, chairman of Stanford University’s chemistry department, tells Chemistry World. ’The only way we can use less money is fewer grants and smaller continuing renewals - if you decide to start new grants then current grants are cut off.’

Chemists in limbo

The rocky start to the new fiscal year leaves chemists in limbo. ’We count on getting renewals of our grants, and if we do not we can’t support the graduate students or PhDs or equipment needed to continue our research,’ says Bruce Berne, a chemistry professor at Columbia University.

The current funding environment may mean layoffs in the short-term; and some research advocates fear that the CR could be extended for the entire fiscal year - if a new president decides money is better spent elsewhere - which could cause even more extensive damage. 

’Even if in the future money becomes available, you will have lost the continuity in your research programme, and it is almost impossible to get back on your feet after that,’ Berne states.

Hand wringing aside, there is some good news. The Department of Defense (DOD) did get its final FY09 budget passed, and the figure includes a 13 percent increase in the agency’s basic research portfolio. That DOD account - which supports a wide spectrum of research, including physical science disciplines like chemistry - could prove a useful source of support for chemists.

Looking to the future, a bill could be passed and signed into law early next year that would fund multiple federal agencies en masse. Alternatively, Congress might have to pass several additional CRs to tide the agencies over until March or April. Either of these scenarios are vastly preferable to a year-long CR because they would likely result in some increases for science agencies.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA

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