Funding Soars for Weaponry in U.S. Budget

Missile defenses top U.S. budget request, but it isn't quite the bonanza that it appears

4 min read

The federal budget request that U.S. President George W. Bush has submitted to Congress contains some impressive new highs for science and technology--but the government's projected US $521 billion deficit for 2004-2005 has translated into some difficult tradeoffs and unpleasant surprises.

White House science adviser John H. Marburger III proudly brags that 5.7 percent of total discretionary fiscal 2005 outlays--the part of the budget that is controllable year to year--would go to nondefense R and D, the third highest level of funding for research in 25 years. His Office of Science and Technology Policy's Web site has all sorts of impressive bar charts, including one that shows civilian R and D growing healthily during Bush's tenure to levels never seen during the Clinton years.

Those charts are accurate as far as they go. But it is important to note that increases over the past decade are attributable first to the doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health and, more recently, to meteoric increases for the Department of Homeland Security. These and some other priority areas, such as nanotechnology and hydrogen energy, have helped beef up the numbers. But the aggregate figures mask the evisceration of research funding in some important areas.

In total, in his budget sent to Congress on 2 February, the president asked for about $48 billion for nondefense R and D, which is $3 billion, or 6.7 percent, more than the year before [see box, " Budget Breakdown"]. But the military research budget jumps to $69.9 billion, an increase of $4.4 billion--also 6.7 percent. All of the Pentagon's increase goes to the development of weapons systems, mostly Missile Defense Agency development funding, which jumps 20 percent to $9.1 billion, in preparation for deployment of missile defenses beginning this year.

The three weapons systems that account for the largest sums in the military's R and D budget are the Armored Systems Modernization Defense ($2.7 billion), the Joint Strike Fighter ($4.6 billion), and, at $4.4 billion, the Ballistic Missile Defense Mid-Course Segment [see photo, " Interception," depicting a failed test in that program]. The military's basic research budget falls 4.5 percent to $1.3 billion, while applied research skids 13.5 percent to $3.8 billion.

Those cuts in basic and applied defense research, taken together with a squeeze on technology funding in many parts of the civilian R and D budget request, prompted representatives of four major scientific societies, including the IEEE-USA's John Steadman, to submit a statement to the House of Representatives Committee on Science. "We believe that the president's budget request for the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering places the future of our nation at great risk, economically and militarily," it says.

Cause for both joy and grief can be found in just about every departmental and agency budget. NASA R and D, for example, would increase by 3.8 percent, to $11.3 billion. Much of that increase is devoted to President Bush's freshly announced exploration initiative, aimed at launching robotic missions to both Mars and the Moon within this decade and manned missions thereafter. It consists of six segments, with titles like Astronomical Search for Origins, Lunar Exploration, and Mars Exploration. The lunar segment is new, and the other five programs see budget increases in the 15 to 20 percent range.

However, while exploration funding would take off, NASA investments in earth science, aeronautics, and physical sciences research would nose-dive. Basic and applied research funding would decline 3.4 percent, actually, as facility construction for development and R and D take priority.

In the long run, as NASA's own projections show, the effect of the Moon-Mars exploration initiative will be to starve funding for the International Space Station and the space shuttle programmatically all present-day manned space activity. "Is this initiative a high enough priority--a pressing enough priority--to be funded in such a [tight] budget?" asks Representative Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee. "I don't know. I'm in a quandary."

At the Department of Energy, the fiscal 2005 R and D increase is a minimal 0.7 percent to begin with. The story behind that static funding: major increases for favored programs, such as the president's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative--$228 million, up from $159 million--and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which would get $38 million, $30 million more than last year. Fashionable nanotechnology would get nearly a billion research dollars, though funding must be shared with nine other agencies. Overall, however, the budget for DOE's Office of Science drops, and biological and environmental research falls through the floor.

Only the Department of Homeland Security escapes the Bush budget axe. The budget at the Science and Technology Division moves up 15.5 percent, to $1.2 billion. But the total Homeland Security budget is $33.8 billion, with border control and transportation weighing in at $14.5 billion and the Coast Guard getting $6.2 billion. So, though the Homeland Security budget as a whole might be likened to the body of a bodybuilding contest winner, the science and technology portion resembles little more than a bulging calf muscle.

To put the U.S. research effort into an international perspective, in terms of overall spending by both the public and private sectors on research and education, the United States ranks by any measure close to the top of the 30 highly industrialized countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is based in Paris. According to a 2004 OECD report, only Sweden spends more on "knowledge" as a proportion of domestic product, and only Finland, Sweden, and Denmark have been increasing their expenditures faster in recent years.

As for government R and D, Iceland ranks first, followed by France, Finland, the United States, Sweden, Korea, and Germany. Luxembourg, Korea, and Spain have boosted their public expenditures most in recent years. Outside the OECD, those making the greatest knowledge efforts are Israel, Singapore, Taiwan, Slovenia, China, Russia, Brazil, and India.

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