At first glance, possible U.S. military action in far-off Syria may not seem to have implications for the American biomedical research community. However, any debate in Congress on whether to give President Obama authorization to launch military strikes on Syria could have significant impact on both research funding and immigration reform affecting the scientific workforce.
Congress works best when it is able to focus on a limited number of major issues at one time. If too many divisive issues are on the table at once, it strains the personal relationships that are the glue that makes Congress work. An ally on one issue may be an opponent on the next issue but an opponent on too many issues makes it hard to work together later on.
When Congress left Washington at the end of July, the federal budget and immigration were two of the larger blips on the Capitol Hill radar screen. The addition of the Syria issue is, in many ways, too much for the congressional community to handle.
Instead of passing a full-year budget that includes the additional 7% to 8% overall budget cuts required under sequestration, it is likely that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution to extend the FY13 budget funding levels for two or three more months. While the pessimist would argue that this only delays the inevitable budget cuts, the optimist would argue that it provides more time for Congress to craft a budget that would exempt federally funded science from the harshest treatment of the budget meat axe. A delay of a couple months would then allow the debate on Syria to come to some kind of resolution. Congress will be able to return to discussions about the size of the sequestration cuts that will be part of the FY14 budget.
The Syria debate could also spell the end to hopes of reforming the American immigration system this year. As a body, the House of Representatives is not wild about reforming the immigration system. Not only does the Syria debate get in the way of the immigration debate but it also serves as a convenient excuse for those opposed to the idea of reform to kick the can a little further down the road.