01/16/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Sequestering Science

On January 2, Congress kept alive the threat of sequestration of federal funds, as Washington gave itself another two months to deal with spending cuts. Across-the-board automatic budget reductions of more than eight percent in all government agencies remain a possibility. And while we hear about how this will imperil defense, health care and other vital social programs, what has gone largely unnoticed is one area that strikes at the core of our strength as a nation. The science enterprise of the country -- the sweeping investments in research that has powered the U.S. economy for much of the last 60 years -- is seriously threatened by the havoc that sequestration could bring.

Even without sequestration, scientific research in the U.S. is already under siege. Budgets for research have remained essentially flat over the last few years, and in 2011 the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded roughly one in five scientific proposals it received. Exciting research ideas, which could have been the foundation for breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and engineering, have already fallen by the wayside as scientists struggle to keep underfunded laboratories in operation.

And on top of an already strained science budget, we now have to deal with sequestration. NIH Director Francis Collins warned that mandated budget cuts could lead to the loss of 2,300 biomedical research grants funded by his agency. By some estimates, it could also result in loss of funding for as many as 2,000 research laboratories supported by NSF. It similarly jeopardizes research by the Department of Energy, NASA and every other agency that assures our scientific research is the best in the world.

This will be, without a doubt, devastating for science. Just the mere threat of sequestration is already taking its toll. In this fiscal twilight zone we find ourselves in, simply waiting for final word from Congress on how the budget axe will fall is already affecting scientific research around the nation. It has forced federal agencies to defer funding for many research projects throughout the country due to uncertainties that plague their budgets.

Admittedly, this is personal for me. My own research, on developing a new way to map genes in plant genomes, is on hold. This work could help pave the way for new crop varieties that can withstand environmental stress. We intended to start work five months ago, but my laboratory and our collaborators find ourselves playing a waiting game on whether we will get the funds we need to move forward.

Other colleagues I have talked to have their own stories of research being held up as federal agencies wait until the sequestration issue is settled. And while we all wait, research vital to finding new medical cures, or manufacturing new materials for industry, or developing new ways to improve our farm yields are in jeopardy.

What is the cost of all this? Clearly one cost will be on a science enterprise that will have greater difficulty in advancing knowledge and developing technologies we need to grow our economy. Science and technology have always been keys to our progress as a nation, and nobody will argue that federal investments in research have been a major fuel for our spectacular economic engine. Just to give one example, it is estimated that the $3.8 billion spent by the federal government over 10 years on the Human Genome Project resulted in $796 billion in economic gain.

But the greater cost will be in the health and well-being of our country and its citizens. Make no mistake -- we are living in an increasingly complex world with real diseases, real hunger and real threats. And when we are faced with problems as a society, many times we look to our scientists to help us out. Reeling from widespread famine, the world turned to scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to develop new varieties of rice, maize and wheat that launched the Green Revolution and staved off hunger. As scientists discovered new and better materials, we saw a transformation in computer and communication technologies that have changed our global society. In combating AIDS and cancer and other killer diseases, it is science that has provided the drugs and therapies that save lives.

Science and technology are the cornerstones of innovation in industry, growth in our economy, and solutions to many of the issues that confront us. Funding scientific research is an investment in our future. Sequestering science will set us back in untold ways.

Michael Purugganan is the Dean for Science at New York University, and does research on plant genomics.