Keeping His Word on Science

President’s R&D budget boosts NSF and energy research, but NIH and other agencies tread water.
February 7, 2006

President Bush hopes to put money where his mouth was in the State of the Union address.

His budget proposal for the 2007 fiscal year, unveiled Monday, requests a $910 million combined increase for basic research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Bioscience researchers, however, may struggle a bit more to get their hands in the federal cookie jar, with requested funding for the National Institutes of Health stagnant at about $28.4 billion, and the total number of grants administered by the institutes set to decline.

“Over all, everybody is really happy with the research budget,” said Toby Smith, senior federal relations  officer with the Association of American Universities, about the increases. The total budget request for federal research and development is up $3.4 billion, to a record $137.2 billion.

The increase for research comes in the context of a dip of 0.5 percent in President Bush’s overall budget request for non-defense discretionary spending, because of a “rise in mandatory spending,” said David Anderson, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, referring to increasingly expensive programs like Social Security and Medicare. Administration officials cite the tight budget climate over all for the need to for “prioritization,” and to explain the lack of funds for education and other programs.

In keeping with the American Competitiveness Initiative President Bush announced at his State of the Union speech, the $910 million for the three “key” agencies, if approved by Congress, would be a 9.3 percent increase over the 2006 fiscal year.

The NSF budget request seeks an 8 percent increase over last fiscal year, which would bring its total budget to about $6 billion. The number of research grants awarded was stagnant at about 6,190 the last two fiscal years, but the new budget asks for 6,760 research grants, and a $5,000 increase in the average grant, to $148,300. Arden L. Bement, director of NSF, said the new grants could support “up to 6,400 more scientists and doctoral fellows.”

The budget request for the Energy Department’s Office of Science is a pleasant surprise for colleges and universities. The budget asks for an increase of $237 million for research programs, $109 million of which is specifically for colleges and universities, raising the total designated solely for colleges and universities by about 22 percent, to $611 million. Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Office of Science, said that the new money -- the office’s total increase would be 14 percent, to $4.1 billion -- could support up to an “additional 2,600 researchers, at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc level … all the way to national labs.”

Experts warned that, once Congress gets its hands on the budget, excessive “earmarking” for projects in lawmakers’ home states could detract from the money requested for basic research.  “Many of the earmarks are not related to [the goals of NSF, NIST, or DoE],” said John H. Marburger III, President Bush’s science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That is not the best use of taxpayer funds.”
The administration’s budget request also seeks slightly more money for the science foundation’s requested education programs. Requested money for graduate education is up about 5 percent, to $161 million, but undergraduate education programs would take a 7 percent hit, dropping them to $197 million.

Money for curriculum and lab instruction is down slightly in the Bush budget, while Math and Science Partnership programs are the big losers. The president has extolled the importance of bolstering math and science education in schools, but apparently he doesn’t think partnering colleges with schools is the way to do it, as requested funding for partnerships is down 27.2 percent, to $46 million.

Smith said that the emphasis for math and science education is going to the Department of Education, rather than NSF. “The Department of Education programs have always focused on meeting minimum standards,” Smith said. “The NSF has funded university programs that focus on promoting excellence. The argument has been that these are complementary, and you need both.”

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed concerns about the NSF’s education programs in a statement that praised the administration’s approach to the science budget over all. “I believe that education programs at NSF are continuing to get short shrift,” he said. “As the administration's own budget documents note, NSF is the 'principal federal agency charged with promoting science and engineering education.'  The proposed budget is not commensurate with carrying out that essential function.”

With all they talk by the White House and others about keeping America on top in the sciences, some biological sciences researchers may have had their fingers crossed for a return to the golden years when the NIH budget was doubling. But it is not to be in the 2007 fiscal year, given what the agency’s director, Elias A. Zerhouni, calmly called a “deficit reduction budget.”

Zerhouni emphasized the importance of bringing new researchers into the biosciences pipeline, and of making sure prospective scientists don’t turn away from the field. In order to do that, even with a stagnant budget, 150-200 grants will be set aside for new investigators. The total number of competitive grants NIH will support in the 2007 fiscal year if the budget is approved will be up 275 from the 2006 fiscal year, to 9,337. Many grants that began at the end of the period when the NIH’s budget doubled, however, will expire at the end of the 2006 fiscal year, next fall. So even with an increase in competitive grants, the total number of grants supported will be down -- for at least the second straight year -- by 1.6 percent, to 35,805 grants.

Accounting for inflation, NIH has not had a budget increase in four years, and last year was the first cut since 1970. “We’ve essentially started the un-doubling of the NIH budget,” said Patrick White, AAU’s director of federal relations. White said that the declining number of grants shows that the NIH’s “portfolio is eroding” in a way that “will translate to a diminished research base.” 

With some of the age-of-doubling grants running out, researchers looking to get new awards might face a more competitive field. “Our concern is what it’s doing to the whole scientific enterprise, and jeopardizing people who want to enter this field,” said Jon Retzlaff, director of legal affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “It’s demoralizing not to have the opportunity of being funded.”

Other research agencies would suffer cuts, too. The president's budget proposed spending a total of $1.038 billion on the Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, down from $1.199 billion in 2006. Funds for research and education (as opposed to extension) would drop to $566 million from $672 million.

Arts and Humanities

President Bush proposed flat budgets for arts and humanities agencies -- and provided mixed news for scholars concerned with preserving and studying historic documents. The humanities endowment would receive $141 million and the arts endowment $124 million -- within a few thousand dollars of their current budgets.

While most of the humanities endowment budget will support continuing programs, funds would also be provided for what the administration is calling a "major initiative" to transcribe, digitize and publish online the papers of the first four presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.

The National Archives and Records Administration, meanwhile, is seeking $485,000 to begin work on a George W. Bush Presidential Library. The funds would be part of the agency's $338 million budget, a 4 percent increase over current levels.

But in a move that will infuriate many historians, the budget proposes to eliminate support for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which over the past four decades has awarded more than $150 million to support preservation and publication of key documents and collections. Scholars waged a successful battle last year to keep the program alive after the Bush administration tried to kill it.

Below is a table summarizing the research funds that would be made available to key agencies that support higher education under the Bush administration's 2007 budget plan:

Agency 2005 appropriation (000s) 2006 appropriation (000s) 2007 request (000s)
National Institutes of Health 28,444,000 28,410,000 28,428,000
National Aeronautics and Space Administration science programs 5,502,000 5,254,000 5,330,000
Energy Department science programs 3,600,000 3,596,000 4,102,000
National Science  Foundation      
Total 5,480,780 5,581,170 6,020,210
Research 4,234,820 4,331,480 4,665,950
Education 843,540 796,690 816,220
Defense Department    
Basic research 1,485,000 1,470,000 1,422,000
Applied research 4,788,000 5,158,000 4,478,000
Agriculture Department    
Cooperative research and extension 655,000 672,000 569,000
Economic Research Service 74,000 75,000 83,000
Agricultural Research Service 1,108,000 1,131,000 1,001,000
Interior Department    
U.S. Geological Survey 935,000 962,000 945,000
Commerce Department  
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency 404,000 370,000 338,000
National Institute for Standards and Technology 451,000 568,000 535,000

Source: Office of Management and Budget


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