The US Debt Ceiling Debate and its Effect on Science

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If the U.S. debt ceiling is not raised by Tuesday, August 2nd, the U.S. Treasury has warned that the country will not be able to pay all its obligations [1]. The debt ceiling is the amount that the country may legally borrow. Congressional Republicans have demanded budget cuts as a condition to raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a default.

Proposals from both Democrats and Republicans amount to a budget reduction of more than $1 trillion in spending over the next ten years; that’s approximately $100 billion per year. Defense spending cuts are off the table, and it’s likely that social security, Medicare and Medicaid programs will also be left untouched. Cuts are expected to be made to the roughly $600-billion domestic discretionary budget.

Science and the debt ceiling debate

Domestic discretionary programs include all federal programs controlled through appropriations except those in defense and international affairs. The agencies that receive significant funding from domestic discretionary appropriations are among the most visible in government, including the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development, and Justice, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In addition, domestic discretionary programs include funding for scientific agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The effects on science are wide-ranging: a reduction of $100 billion, applied across the board, would result in a 17% cut to the NIH, NSF and DOE [2]. If the $100 billion cuts start in fiscal year 2012, it’s likely that legislators would apply the budget reduction roughly equally to all programs. That would result in cuts of more than $5 billion to the NIH, $1 billion to the NSF, and $800 million of the Office of Science [2]. If the $100 billion cuts start in fiscal year 2013, the effects may not be as severe. Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives’s subcommittee for commerce, justice and science sent a bill to the House floor that maintains current funding for the NSF [3]. That suggests both sides of the isle are supporting science.

Friday night, the Republican-controlled House approved legislation to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in two stages. The Republican bill provides an immediate $900 billion increase in U.S. borrowing authority offset by spending cuts of $917 billion over the next decade. A second debt limit increase would be dependent on Congress sending to the states a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Less than two hours after the legislation was passed in the House, the Senate killed the bill and is preparing their own plan to avoid default on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, President Obama resisted cuts to biomedical research funding, arguing that government support for research and development to fund innovation is a necessary and critical investment that must be made, even in the face of a rising national debt. Since 2003, there has been a trend of flat or below-inflation funding for the NIH. Investment in biomedical research will lead to new medical breakthroughs and discoveries that will benefit everyone by helping to fight disease and improve the quality of life for everyone in America.


  1. Update: As Previously Announced, Treasury to Employ Final Extraordinary Measure to Extend U.S. Borrowing Authority Until August 2. U.S. Department of the Treasury. 2011 Jul 15.
  2. What does the US debt ceiling debate mean for science? Nature News. 2011 Jul 28.
  3. Appropriations Committee Approves the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations. 2011 Jul 13.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.