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Delvers into U.S. R and D Budget Numbers Are Disappointed

Science groups say U.S. budget austerity will mean penny-pinching for researchers

6 min read

7 May 2004--Science and technology analysts are examining the U.S. federal budget. It must be spring. Each year at this time, after the White House releases its proposal for the upcoming year's budget, members of the science and technology community get together at high-level policy forums in Washington, D.C., to discuss what the proposal will mean for their ongoing and planned projects. And with the Bush administration's 2005 budget plan, the mood at these meetings has been one of disappointment.

The administration's science policies were analyzed at a trio of events. The first was the 8�9 March Engineering R and D Symposium, cosponsored by IEEE-USA. The following month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its 29th Annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy on 22�23 April. Then, at a news conference on 4 May, the National Science Board announced the release of its biennial report on the U.S. scientific and technical work force, Science and Engineering Indicators.

Crowding into these gatherings were engineers and scientists who conduct research and teach the next generation of technologists; grant managers, whose task is to set their departments' priorities and decide how their resources should be directed; staffers at the technical societies, now concerned that the combination of tight budgets, outsourcing, and the influx of foreign workers will make careers in science and technology less attractive to U.S.-born students; congressional staffers looking to get the science and technology community's take on the ramifications of the budget proposal; reporters; and even a few retirees.

Ordinarily a few agencies carping about the need for more funds than they were allocated would not be newsworthy. But there was a widespread sense of disbelief that the budget, the written reflection of the president's priorities, would so greatly undervalue the importance of R and D. When asked about response of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the 2005 budget and whether it has lobbied to have its funding increased, the National Science Board's Robert C. Richardson noted that employees of the agency are forbidden by federal law from lobbying. "But in my other roles--as vice provost for research at Cornell [University], or say, as a member of the National Academy of Sciences--I've fought like hell."

Of the shift in priorities that may leave agencies like the NSF wanting, Richardson said, "There are many of us who disagree and feel [the budget plans] are shortsighted." But he reminded all in attendance at the Indicators briefing that the proposed budget is just that--a proposal.

Among the speakers at both the March and April events was John H. Marburger III, the president's science advisor. In contrast to the pleasant face Marburger put on regarding the White House's decisions during his keynote address, each of the speakers who followed him painted a picture that is not so rosy.

Listening to the analysis in March by Kei Koizumi, director of R and D budget and policy programs at the Washington, D.C.,-based AAAS, this reporter could not help thinking of the lyrics to the Billie Holiday song, "God Bless the Child." The FY 2005 budget calls for a US $5.45 billion increase in R and D funding over funds for 2004. But while the size of the total R and D pie will remain steady (when adjusted for inflation), a shift in priorities after 9/11 means that "Them that's got shall get/Them that's not shall lose."

Under the Bush proposal, defense R and D, which already accounted for more than 55 percent of the federal appropriations for research, would have an additional $4 billion--more than three-quarters of the total funding increase--added to its R and D budget. The Pentagon, whose research budget would then total $69.9 billion, would use the increase exclusively for weapons development.

The rest of the government--the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Transportation, and Education, and agencies such as the NSF and the Environmental Protection Agency--will have to make do with their shrinking shares of the pie.

Along with the annual budget come projections of what the budget will be like for the next five years. It is in these predictions of budget priorities through 2009 that nondefense R and D's lowly status becomes abundantly clear. An analysis paper done by AAAS concluded that "while the specific reductions contained in these [FY 2005 budget] projections are not inevitable, similar cuts will be necessary if future Congresses and [presidential] administrations focus on restraining domestic spending instead of considering other budget options."

Take, for example, the NSF, whose funding would rise to $5.7 billion in 2005 (from $5.58 billion in 2004), then decline steadily in following years. Its inflation-adjusted budget for 2009 will be 4.7 percent less than for 2004. Lamenting the loss, A. Galip Ulsoy, director of NSF's civil and mechanical systems division, told IEEE Spectrum that tight budgets will make it difficult for the agency to attract the best and brightest professionals to run its research programs. "I can't get the best people to fill vacancies when budget restraints will prevent them from putting their stamp on the direction we're taking," he said. "They are reluctant to come in and be caretakers of existing projects knowing that they will not have the opportunity to jump into work they're passionate about."

An official from another R and D funding agency noted that "the cost of doing business continues to rise [and] federally mandated salary increases have to be paid. So, if funding doesn't keep up, less and less science gets done."

The NSF is not alone. Nine of the 12 largest R and D funding agencies will be forced to tighten their belts. The Department of Energy's Office of Science--the leading federal source of support for research in physics, chemistry, geology, the material sciences, advanced scientific computing, and other disciplines--has had to deal with slowly declining budgets for years. But the Bush budget projections call for it to lose another 9.5 percent by 2009. On 27 April, 55 senators urged members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations to increase the Energy Department's Science Office's budget by 10 percent over the request level.

Part of the reason for the widespread disappointment may be that hopes--based on the good fortunes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--were dashed. The NIH, buoyed by the desire to ramp up biotechnology research, had its budget doubled between 1998 and 2003. NSF's Ulsoy notes that "the expectation was that other departments would, one by one, have their budgets doubled, or at least significantly increased." When that initiative to increase the funding commenced, however, the U.S. economy was strong, the government was operating in a surplus, and military spending was flat. But now, even NIH will see its funding begin to level off--a decline once inflation is accounted for.

The Department of Commerce is also caught in the crosshairs; its R and D programs will lose 13.6 percent of their annual funding. These include the work done at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, an agency that is home to well-known initiatives such as the Advanced Technology Program (ATP). ATP was the subject of unintended levity during the R and D symposium. Adam Rosenberg, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, drew laughter after he highlighted a jarring non sequitur in the budget proposal related to ATP funding. In describing the program, the authors of the budget document praised its instrumental role in some important advances in science and technology. Then, without any ado, a terse statement followed: "The President's 2005 Budget proposes to eliminate the program and, therefore, no funds are requested for FY 2005."

The budget numbers beg the question: if the administration knows how important R and D in areas such as physics, chemistry, and computing is to maintaining the United States' standing as the world's largest economy, why cut funding? According to AAAS's Koizumi, science and technology budgets have been sacrificed on the altar of the White House's tax cuts and its plan to simultaneously narrow the country's rapidly widening budget deficit. The tax cuts would lower federal revenue by $75 billion over the next five years, siphoning further from the pool of discretionary funds from which R and D budgets are taken. The budget plan, he noted, is part of the administration's attempt to seem fiscally conservative while continuing to spend lavishly for military and security objectives.

The problem with this approach was highlighted by the National Science Board's Richardson: "The priorities of the [present administration] are defense, homeland security, and education." But, he said, as if speaking directly to the president's budget gurus, "Science and scientific research play a critical part in all of those."

Another concern noted by AAAS was the costs of the United States' continuing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and how that might further constrain R and D spending. The administration confirmed this week that it will ask Congress for an additional $25 billion for use in the first quarter of the 2005 fiscal year.

If the administration has its way, the hard times nondefense R and D is experiencing may get worse after 2009. The president's call for extensions of the tax cuts would mean a loss of a further $800 billion in revenues for the federal government between 2009 and 2014. Agencies funding nondefense R and D already find themselves elbowing their way to the table for a slice of the pie. But, in that case, will there be enough dough to make one?

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