The agricultural research, education, and extension programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and related science programs at other Federal agencies survived the tumultuous fiscal year 2012 appropriations cycle for the US government with only a few scars. While all early indications pointed to a year of colossal cuts in USDA research, education, and extension programs, consistent advocacy for maintaining the viability of the agricultural sector through basic and applied science and technology programs yielded results on Capitol Hill and led to only minor decreases in funding for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Even though the overall decreases for NIFA and the ARS are 1 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively, when compared to the FY 2011 levels, there were a few programmatic reductions that will have significant ramifications for some individuals. For example, ARS is closing 12 agricultural programs at 10 locations, and funding was zeroed out for NIFA’s integrated food safety program that has funded essential pathogen-host interaction studies. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) sustained a funding cut of almost 6 percent and 15 APHIS offices will be closed. Funding for the Basic Energy Sciences program at the Department of Energy was reduced by almost 5 percent while research and related activities at the National Science Foundation received an increase of almost 4 percent. Total funding for nondefense research and development at all US governmental agencies will be 1.4 percent less in FY 2012 than in 2011 (in nominal terms).
After surviving last year’s funding difficulties and ending up with a less dire situation than expected, we might be tempted to think that we can take it easy this year and not worry too much about funding levels for plant pathology related programs at the USDA and other agencies. Who would expect major cuts in an election year? After all even the “Super Committee” was not able to reach an agreement on measures to put the US fiscal house in order. Then, of course, with a potentially tight Presidential race, neither party will want to take unpopular decisions that might alienate voters. So, we can sit back, relax, and wait until next year, right? Wrong.
Precisely because the Super Committee was not able to put together a $1.5 trillion, 10-year package of budget reductions last year, automatic, across-the-board cuts (“sequestration” of funds) will begin in January 2013 unless Congress and the President take additional actions. As part of the debt limit agreement enacted late last summer, a mechanism was put in place to force automatic cuts if Congress and the Administration were unable to implement significant reductions in spending before the end of 2011. While the exact level of overall cuts is not yet known, this automatic mechanism could require annual cuts of more than $100 billion per year. If there is a budget and appropriations agreement this year that implements programmatic reductions in spending sufficient to meet the statutory spending caps outlined in the debt limit agreement, the sequestration can be avoided. Alternatively, if that fails, the only way to avoid the sequestration is to change or repeal the relevant provisions of the 2011 Debt Limit Agreement. Either scenario will require the Congress and the President to reach an agreement this year. Yes, this year, an election year in which the control of the Senate and the White House is up for grabs. As occurred with the Super Committee last fall, this may prove too tall an order for the political leaders of either political party. Thus, there is an increasing likelihood that we will see automatic cuts within the next year. Of importance to agricultural research, extension, and education programs, is the fact that these cuts will not be applied at the same level for all programs as the Administration retains the authority to move funding between programs. Thus, it is possible that USDA programs could sustain a much larger percentage cut than other agencies.
No one disputes that something must be done about the escalating US budget deficits. While spending cuts are certainly in order, concurrent investments in research and development must also be made to jumpstart our economy in the short-term and build a foundation for sustainable economic viability for our long-term future. Numerous studies have indicated the significant return that accrues from investment in agricultural research programs. Unfortunately, many forget about agricultural research when developing science and technology stimulus packages. Each of us needs to remind policy makers of the importance of maintaining and, indeed, increasing funding for Federally supported agricultural research programs. If we fail to make our case convincingly and persistently to policy makers, we could see massive reductions in agricultural research, extension, and education programs the repercussions of which could be with us for decades to come.