Despite a promise from political leaders to pass a continuing resolution in September that would fund the federal government at current spending levels through March 2013, looming budget battles and sequestration could lead to significant cuts in research funding.

Members of the U.S. Congress will have some serious budget work to do after Labor Day. With no budget in place for fiscal year 2013, which begins on October 1, party leaders promised to approve a continuing resolution after they return from their summer recess that would fund government operations at their current level. The stopgap measure would keep the federal government operating through the first 6 months of the fiscal year, until April 1, 2013.

Although party leaders agreed to abide by the $1.047-trillion discretionary spending cap set for the year by the Budget Control Act of 2011, that amount could change when Congress revisits appropriations bills by the March 31 deadline.

Exacerbating immediate budgetary anxieties is the looming threat of sequestration, scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013. Triggered as a result of the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to agree in November 2011 on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, sequestration would mean automatic, across-the-board cuts of about 8% in nondefense discretionary spending.

According to an Office of Management and Budget estimate, NIH would suffer a total budget cut of $2.8 billion in FY2013 as a result of sequestration. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, testified before Congress that his agency would be forced to award about 2,300 fewer grants than it currently funds. Application success rates, he noted, are already at an historic low of 17%.

Some agencies, in anticipation of sequestration and other cuts, may start to scale back spending this fall. “I anticipate that NIH will adopt a very conservative approach in making its first round of grants in December,” says Dave Moore, senior director of government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

With funding so uncertain, Moore says that AAMC members are trimming existing research programs or delaying the implementation of new ones. “Research is a long-term endeavor,” he says. “Good science requires a more stable and predictable environment.”

Many Washington insiders believe that Congress will find a way to avert sequestration, especially since the Congressional Budget Office predicts it would stall economic recovery or even push the country back into a recession. “A lot of unfortunate things would happen if sequestration went into effect,” says Paul Van de Water, PhD, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The general expectation is that something will be done.”