Budget ‘Sequestration’ and Climate Change: The Looming Reality of Less Science

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Don’t look now, but the much ballyhooed budget ‘sequestration’ shenanigans under way in the Nation’s Capital are beginning to have some pretty sobering effects on the nation’s climate change science efforts. Round and round, but where it goes … nobody [yet] quite knows ….

Furloughs, potential layoffs, hiring freezes, “early-outs,” and “reductions-in-force.” Delays on planned equipment upgrades. Fenced-off travel budgets and anemic new grant funding opportunities.

These and more are among implications of the budget “sequestration” imbroglio enveloping elected officials in the Nation’s Capital. And they’re beginning to add up to one big realization for those involved in communities focused on climate change: Less research will be done in the coming months — possibly years — across many agencies, laboratories, universities, and other institutions, likely going well beyond “just” the federal agencies.

The rolling federal budget cuts now in effect under sequestration — roughly $1 trillion over 10 years, $85 billion this year — initially had been characterized as something of a pending disaster for the U.S. economy. After they began actually going into effect, a narrative developed suggesting the anticipated impacts may have been overhyped. A certain shoulder-shrugging over “the sequester” then became more common.

Many in the climate and clean energy communities, however, were raising alarm bells well in advance of the sequester — from green groups to then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu to even an occasional member of Congress. And some of their fears now are being realized.

Evolving Stories Abound

Since the sequester went into effect, media outlets large and small have been spotlighting potential implications for both personnel and core research. Small in some cases, and perhaps only provisional, those effects may offer a window into the future if the cuts hold.

For example, Darren Samuelson at Politico highlighted mandatory furloughs at several federal agencies — entire agencies were closed for a day in May — including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rachel Nuwer, of Inside Climate News (ICN), provided a detailed look at research cuts at some of the regional climate centers. Daniel Weiss, of ClimateProgress, affiliated with the liberal Center for American Progress, has explored increased health and climate risks associated with budget cuts.

Given the slow, painstaking, and long-term character of much climate-related research, the precise nature and ultimate outcomes of the cuts are hard to discern. But for scientists and officials focused on climate change, the blunt, across-the-board reductions create uncertainty and force many into struggling just to try to stay afloat.

“While NOAA was required to reduce its FY13 budget by 7 percent, our final plans are still pending congressional approval,” Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, told The Yale Forum in an e-mail. “We are working to ensure that critical functions are appropriately funded and negative impacts to operations are minimized.”

These sorts of dynamics have prompted some in the media to seize on the short-term consequences of cutting funding for climatic science and monitoring. (See, for example, “Does anyone regret cutting the National Weather Service budget now?” published at Salon in the wake of the Oklahoma tornado.) Maryland’s Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski raised similar questions in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post.

On June 1, Politico reported that looming furloughs at NOAA were being postponed. “The events over the past week, including more devastating tornadoes tonight in Oklahoma and Missouri, remind us how important every single employee within NOAA is to the health, safety and well-being of this nation,” acting NOAA administrator Kathy Sullivan wrote in a memo.

Less Science Being Done

“More people are carrying a little bit extra load, and a little less science gets done,” said Matt Larsen, Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which in 2013 is losing about $55 million in funding, or 5 percent of its budget. “For an agency that has endured about two decades of modest to zero funding increases,” Larsen told The Yale Forum, “that translates to a continual reduction in the science that we undertake and provide to the nation.”

He said that a summer hiring freeze basically remains in effect, updates on aging instruments and equipment will eventually need to be postponed, and untouchable scientific travel budgets — for the conferences and meetings where ideas are exchanged and the peer-review process is kindled — are making it difficult for agency scientists and researchers to go anywhere these days.

“With so many needed attendees missing from meetings, it’s really cut down on the usefulness of meetings and on the effectiveness of some projects,” Kelly Redmond, a climatologist and deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, told The Yale Forum. “It more seems that it’s wasted just as much money as it’s ‘saved.’”

Janet Franklin, professor of geographical sciences at Arizona State University in Phoenix, says she’s seen the same problems. “A meeting I attended in April had a lot of cancellations by federal scientists who were not allowed to travel to conferences because of the sequester,” she noted in an e-mail. “This applied ecology meeting is usually attended by lots of Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service and EPA scientists. It is really bad for a scientific meeting to have a lot of holes in the program at the last minute — especially a smaller meeting.” Franklin also said she has decided not to apply for a NASA grant this year because “the specter of the sequester was enough to make me sit out this round.”

Reduced federal line items, of course, have a trickle-down effect, as fewer university research efforts get funded. USGS, for example, partners with 40 or so different science centers, many of which are expected to take a hit. Projects such as state-level water research will suffer, as the environmental reporting site Circle of Blue has reported. Also at risk given all the unknowns: joint research projects involving academics and government scientists.

Lab and field researchers across the country invariably mention fears that cuts at the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, for example, will choke off the stream of new requests for proposals, RFPs — the funding pipeline that is crucial to advancing scientific understanding at a basic level.

Some Bright Spots Amidst a Generally Gloomy Future

Still, not all the news is decisively bleak for the climate change research community — at least just yet.

Jay Gulledge, director of the Environmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), told The Yale Forum that as for the cuts — whether originating from the sequester or from general congressional budget tightening — the “effect was small but real” this year, and ORNL does not yet know the impact for 2014. The cuts were not “necessarily passed on to climate-related projects at ORNL.”

Further, Gulledge notes that “within the DOE Office of Science, the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) is responsible for most climate change programs. BER faired relatively well under the sequester, which bodes well for climate related projects.”

In 2011 — before accepting his current job in Oak Ridge — Gulledge had explored in a piece he wrote for Nature the challenging political climate for the science community generally, in light of current budget problems. “To avoid a permanent retraction of government support for research,” wrote Gulledge, at the time a senior scientist and director for science and impacts at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “the science community must be more strategic and aggressive in conveying the value of its work to society and in gaining robust support from politicians.”

Many officials, researchers, and administrators point out that the longer and deeper the cuts, the more challenging it will be to maintain certain climate change-related projects. If the sequester rolls on, one of the tasks facing a shrinking number of staff science reporters and bloggers will involve following these projects and documenting any permanent damages and lost opportunities.

Whether their news organization employers have the chops to do that job in the current ailing mass media economy is, of course, another subject — and another uncertainty — altogether.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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