Uncertain Outlook for Science Funds

Congressional support strong for Bush's competitiveness effort, but calendar and electoral politics make passage iffy.
October 11, 2006

Last January, on the heels of a National Academies report decrying a "gathering storm" of problems for America's international competitiveness in science, President Bush announced to great fanfare that the nation urgently needed to invest more funds in basic research. His proposed solution, the American Competitiveness Initiative, was largely embraced by Congressional leaders, who introduced a slew of legislation to back the President's proposal. But with little time left before Congress adjourns for the year, the prospects for reversing the perceived decline of U.S. dominance in science seem dim.


The U.S. Senate has rolled together three bills on science competitiveness into a single, bipartisan package that may or may not be voted on in the upcoming lame duck session this November. The House Science Committee has passed two much narrower bills that would bolster the National Science Foundation's education programs and programs to help researchers early in their careers. Those bills have not been acted on by the full House.

Bill Hoagland, budget and appropriations director for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), says that the current bill would authorize spending of $72.9 billion for the 2007-11 fiscal years. Of that, $22 billion would be new money not currently found in the budget. Two of the legislation's major goals are a doubling of the National Science Foundation budget, from $5.6 billion in 2006 to $11.2 billion in 2011. The bill would also create a new program within the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which would focus on new energy technologies. The office would split approximately $4 billion to $5 billion annually with the Department of Defense's advanced research agency.

The Senate legislation has significant support -- more than 40 co-sponsors already. But the limited time that Congress has left for the year -- lawmakers are recessed until after the November 7 election, and will return only for a lame-duck session -- and the prospect that the election could shift the balance of power within Congress -- leave the bill’s final outcome up in the air, Hoagland acknowledges. “Who knows what will happen after the election,” he says.

Tobin Smith, associate director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, notes that a final bill would probably take significant time to pass, and that the tight Congressional calendar may not leave enough time for Congress to finish its work on the bill, even if the Senate were to find time to pass it.

Smith says he would be happy with either the Senate or the House bill, but notes that both merely authorize maximum spending levels, rather than providing any actual funds. “Authorizations are like Monopoly money,” he said. “Appropriated money is real money.” The places to watch, he advises, are the appropriations committees in both House and Senate. Smith says that the appropriations committees for both the House and the Senate have approved legislation that is largely in line with the president's American Competitiveness Initiative.


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