Pinching Pennies on Research

The Bush budget plan would provide small increases for the NIH and NSF, while cutting spending on other programs.
February 8, 2005

President Bush released his fiscal 2006 budget plan Monday and it contained little welcome news for researchers.

Two of the largest providers of funds for university research -- the National Institutes of Health (less than 1 percent) and the National Science Foundation (3 percent) -- would receive small increases. And research supported by the Department of Homeland Security would do quite well, going up by nearly 24 percent.

But funds for the National Endowment for the Humanities would remain flat, and cuts were proposed for research supported by the Defense Department, the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department, the Commerce Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across all agencies, the budget called for:

  • $132.3 billion on research and development spending, an increase of 1 percent.
  • $26.6 billion on basic research, a decrease of 1 percent.
  • $28.2 billion on applied research, a decrease of less than 1 percent.
  • $72.7 billion on development, an increase of 2 percent.

Budget documents released by the administration contain repeated references to the value placed on research. "Basic research is the source of tomorrow's discoveries and new capabilities, and this long-term research will fuel further gains in economic productivity, quality of life, and homeland and national security," says the budget overview released by the White House.

But even that overview acknowledged that top priorities for the administration included both homeland security and "moderating the growth in overall spending." Indeed, since most research dollars are "discretionary" -- meaning that there are not legal requirements for them to be spent -- they are highly vulnerable in years like this one, when the administration and Congress are vowing to cut the deficit.

Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, issued a statement criticizing the "inadequate" budget proposals. He said that they would, if adopted, "erode the research and innovative capacity of our nation." While Hasselmo focused on the cuts to energy and defense programs, he said that even the NIH and NSF are not really doing well.

The increases for those agencies "are so modest," he said, that they will end up supporting less research next year than in the current year's budget. (The AAU's Web site features a useful compilation of the budget documents from various agencies.)

The outlook for the budget plan for research is hard to predict. Many members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- are strong backers of research, and research programs have frequently relied on Congress, not presidents, to keep their budgets growing.

In keeping with that tradition, the Democratic members of the House Science Committee denounced the budget proposal Monday, saying that it means "that on a daily basis 'blockbuster' experiments cannot be performed, future Albert Einsteins are not being taught math and science, and the next ideas for breakthroughs in medical imaging techniques are gathering dust on a shelf." 

But the Republican leadership of the current Congress has vowed to keep federal spending in check, so there may be little wiggle room for those seeking to add funds to various agencies.

Increases for Homeland Security and the NSF

One of the few research areas that would do well in the budget plan is homeland security. The science and technology programs supported by the new Department of Homeland Security would see their budget increase nearly 24 percent, to $1.37 billion, under the plan.

In addition to providing more money, the budget plan calls for better coordination of these research efforts, many of which were once parts of the various agencies that were combined to create the department.

Homeland security issues also figure in the plan for the NIH. While many research efforts there would receive modest increases, the budget singles out biodefense as a priority: Biodefense research funds would increase by more than 8 percent. Top priorities for that spending include clinical development of vaccines for plague, Ebola and other diseases that might be intentionally spread, and the development of treatments for anthrax.

By comparison, the total NIH budget increase requested is less than 1 percent. 

The one other science agency that would do well is the NSF, which would see its research funds increase by nearly 3 percent, to $4.33 billion. A major emphasis within that total would be cybersecurity issues.

But not everything at the NSF would gain under the plan. Funds for education would be cut by 12.4 percent, to $737 million.

Other Agencies

The increases at the NSF and NIH look good compared to those at many other science agencies. The following is a summary of the proposals in which the R&D figure represents total research and development while the "FS&T" figure represents a category of spending known as "Federal Science and Technology" that is focused on the creation of new knowledge. The latter figure generally includes more of the funds that involve university researchers (and the entire budgets of NIH and NSF).

  • At the Department of Defense, R&D would increase by 1 percent and FS&T would drop by 14 percent.
  • At the Department of Energy, R&D would decrease by 1 percent and FS&T would drop by 5 percent.
  • At the Department of Agriculture, R&D would decrease by 16 percent and FS&T would drop by 10 percent.
  • At the Environmental Protection Agency, R&D would decrease by 1 percent and FS&T by 2 percent.

President Bush proposed a flat budget -- at $138 million -- for the National Endowment for the Humanities. All of its major program areas would receive the same amount as this year's appropriation.


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