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After the State of the Union

February 2, 2006

A day after President Bush proposed a huge expansion of federal support for physical sciences research, federal officials provided a few new details about the plan but also gave indications -- vaguely worrying to university officials -- that the funds might well come at the expense of other kinds of academic research.

There was relatively little new information to be had Wednesday about the American Competitiveness Initiative that President Bush unveiled in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The proposal, which most college officials applauded, calls for doubling federal spending on basic research at the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science, and the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, at a cost of $50 billion over 10 years; making permanent and expanding the research and development tax credit to encourage corporate investment in scientific innovation, at a cost of $86 billion over 10 years; and pouring $380 million in 2007 into programs aimed at improving the teaching of math and science in elementary and secondary schools.

Full details of the proposals won't be available until the Bush administration releases its full 2007 budget plan Monday, but administration officials shed some additional light on the plan at a briefing Wednesday. Samuel Bodman, the secretary of energy, said the Bush plan would result in a "renaissance for United States science," and especially for the physical sciences, which he acknowledged have seen their federal support largely flatten out in recent years. Like the four other Cabinet officials with which he appeared, Bodman praised the Bush plan effusively; he acknowledged at one point that "we've maybe overused the word 'historic.' "

The Bush plan calls for $910 million in new research funds in 2007, and the Energy Department's share of the new funds, Bodman said, would support 2,600 more researchers in 2007 than in 2006. Bodman said the newly supported scientists would include those at Energy Department-supported labs and at universities, but he could not provide a more specific breakdown. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said the new funds for his agency's NIST would support 600 new scientists, mostly agency employees rather than academic researchers.

Even as he heralded the proposed investment in the physical sciences, John H. Marburger III, President Bush's science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, acknowledged that other forms of federal scientific research could feel a pinch as a result. "This is a prioritization exercise," Marburger said in response to a reporter's question about where the funds for the physical sciences would come from in an era of federal fiscal constraint. The president's plan calls for more research funds for the NSF and the Energy and Commerce Departments, "but it does not make that commitment for all of science," he warned.

Other agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, which saw Congress double its budget over a five-year period from 1998 to 2003, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration might take a hit in the administration's 2007 budget, Marburger implied.

Supporters of biomedical research and science in fields other than the physical sciences generally declined to comment on that prospect, saying they wanted to reserve judgment until the budget is formally released next week. But they said they had been getting vibes from administration officials about possible cuts in the budget for the NIH and other agencies, and are concerned as well about a possible reduction in federal support for science education at agencies like the National Science Foundation, which they said could run counter to President Bush's State of the Union call for strengthening scientific literacy and training.

Democratic lawmakers saw similar mixed signals in the House of Representatives' passage Wednesday of the $40 billion budget reconciliation bill, which would squeeze $12 billion out of the student loan programs through a combination of increased rates for students and families and reduced subsidies for lenders. "America is number one in the global economy, and we can stay number one if we make aggressive investments in education, innovation and future generations," Miller said. "President Bush said as much last night, but today Washington Republicans showed that they have no credibility on the issue."

Republican supporters of the legislation, S 1932, which passed by a vote of 216 to 214, counter that the measure would create a new $3.5 billion grant program aimed at increasing the number of students from low- and middle-income families who go into scientific and technological disciplines. Also Wednesday, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate education committees released a letter they sent to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in which they disputed an assertion made by critics of the new grant program that it would open the door to a greater federal role in the setting of high school curriculums.

The budget reconciliation measure now goes to President Bush for his signature.

 

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