Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sequestration for the Perplexed and Minor Corrections

The journal Science has posted an article on the sequester for the perplexed that left me even more perplexed (and it's not because the writing isn't clear).  (The sequester would be automatic budget cuts applied to most US Federal programs at the beginning of March.)  It appears that the cuts that will be implemented this year may be 8.2%, 6.4%, or 5%.  The wording suggests, however, that any smaller cut this year may have to be made up for with larger cuts in future years to hit a total of $1.2 trillion over ten years.  It's also not clear what at what level of programs the cuts must be applied -- for NASA it might be the entire science division, each major science program (planetary, astrophysics, Earth science, etc.), or by budget category (for example, the Mars program).

Having had to decide where to cut programs in my former career, I know how painful this is and my sympathies are with the managers who have to plan for this.  My hope is that the political process will work at the last moment and we never have to learn what was on the chopping block.

In the charts showing the budgets for the Maven mission development and Curiosity rover operations in my post, Sequestration and Planetary Exploration, my spreadsheet software showed incorrect percentages (but correct dollar amounts).  I've corrected these charts, and I thank Duane for pointing out the problem.

Casey Dreier (I presume this is the same Casey who is the Planetary Society's Advocacy and Outreach Strategist) in the comments points out that the sequester will be calculated from Fiscal Year 2012 budgets.  NASA's overall budget for that year and this year are almost the same, so if NASA is given discretion on how to distributed the cuts, this may not make much of a difference.  However, if the sequester is applied to each program, the news might be better for the planetary program if FY12 is the basis:

Budget    8.2% cut Remainder
FY12 $1,501 -$123 $1,378
FY13 $1,192 -$98 $1,094

(All figures are in millions of dollars.)

If the planetary science program is cut less, though, other NASA programs likely will be cut more.  

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