'Unreal' Boost for Science?

President Bush's proposed budget for basic research and development in the 2009 fiscal year seeks a record $147 billion, a 3 percent increase over 2008 that would elevate the physical sciences and engineering, in particular, while keeping funding for the National Institutes of Health flat and scaling back or cutting other domestic programs, including for financial aid.

February 5, 2008

President Bush's proposed budget for basic research and development in the 2009 fiscal year seeks a record $147 billion, a 3 percent increase over 2008 that would elevate the physical sciences and engineering, in particular, while keeping funding for the National Institutes of Health flat and scaling back or cutting other domestic programs, including for financial aid.

In an ideal world, Monday's release of the $3.1 trillion budget for fiscal 2009 would be great news for research universities that perform the bulk of projects funded by the major federal R&D agencies supporting engineering and physical sciences -- the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Given this year's budget, which was finalized only in December's omnibus appropriations bill after a veto threat forced lawmakers to make painful last-minute R&D cuts to stay within reach of President Bush's declared ceiling, there was an understandable sense of fiscal déjà vu that has some lobbyists wondering whether basic research will share a similar fate next year.

"It’s setting up the same situation that's happened in the past two years," said Kei Koizumi, the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The big question, he added, is whether this time the president, Congress and research institutions can successfully shepherd the research funding increases into a final budget. Already, national laboratories have found themselves cutting staff, suspending research projects or mandating rolling unpaid leave. The 2009 budget, if passed as is, would fund research facilities such as the National Synchrotron Light Source II, and infrastructure, in addition to basic research.

Tobin Smith, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, called the budget request "unreal" and wondered aloud whether, like last year, efforts on Capitol Hill to rescue programs marked for reduction would squeeze out the president's more ambitious R&D funding goals. Many of Bush's proposed increases are concentrated in areas designated as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, which emphasizes basic research in the physical sciences and engineering tailored to promoting future economic growth.

Through the America COMPETES Act, Congress last year authorized the goals of the competitiveness effort, such as doubling basic research funding levels in the physical sciences, but much of those funds were lost somewhere on the committee room floor during December's budget wrangling.

"It’s going to be a big challenge, because overall the president once again is requesting a flat, if not declining, total domestic budget, and that is the bottom line under which all of these ACI-related R&D proposals have to fit," Koizumi said. "So once again ... these are enormous requested increases for the Office of Science and NSF and NIST at the same time as many domestic programs would be cut dramatically or eliminated."

The omnibus appropriations bill for 2008, for example, funded only a third of the president's requested increase for the ACI, or $408 million -- and more than half of that amount was delivered in the form of noncompetitive earmarks. In principle, universities support the gold standard of competitive, transparent grant programs, although many institutions continue to lobby Congress for specially allocated funds directed to specific research projects.

Last week, in his final State of the Union address, President Bush announced a commitment to reduce the number of earmarks by half -- backed up by assurances of a veto -- in appropriations bills passed during his last year in office. He also directed federal agencies, beginning in the 2009 fiscal year, to ignore earmarks included in committee reports but not voted on by members of Congress, a move that many advocates against "pork-barrel spending" have suggested would nonetheless be easy to circumvent.

Stressing competitive projects, the proposed budget seeks $12.2 billion for the three ACI agencies, an increase of $1.6 billion, or 15 percent, over the $10.6 billion enacted for 2008. That includes a 13.6 percent increase for the NSF, to $6.85 billion; an 18.8 percent increase for Energy's Office of Science, to $4.72 billion; and a 21.5 percent boost in funding for NIST's core research projects, to $634 million. The percentages don't account for earmarks granted in 2008 -- which in some cases were a significant portion of individual budgets -- causing the increases to appear greater than might otherwise be expected.

But if research universities were pleased with the budget's plans for R&D -- on paper, at least -- they were less sanguine on the topic of biomedical research. President Bush's proposal requests $29.23 billion for the NIH, the exact amount appropriated for fiscal year 2008. In a statement, the AAU's president, Robert M. Berdahl, said: "If approved, this will mean that, over six years' time, NIH's purchasing power for conducting groundbreaking biomedical research has been cut by one-seventh. We hope Congress will find the means to begin reversing this trend."

Or, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Susan Hockfield put it at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on Monday: "The numbers out today don’t promise any relief in the coming year.”

Selected Agencies in Bush Administration 2009 Science and Technology Budget (in Millions)

Agency 2008 Appropriation 2009 Request Dollar Change
National Institutes of Health $29,307 $29,307 $0
Energy Department Office of Science $3,973 $4,722 +$749
National Science Foundation $6,032 $6,854 +$822
Defense Department Basic Research $1,634 $1,699 +$65
National Institute of Standards and Technology Intramural Research/Facilities $605 $634 +$29
Agriculture Department Research & Extension $672 $539 -$133

The proposed budget would also slash Medicare payments to hospitals, a prospect that provoked immediate opposition from the Association of American Medical Colleges. In a statement, the organization's president, Darrell G. Kirch, said: "The nation’s teaching hospitals already face the potential loss of Medicaid payments for graduate medical education, which are vital to training our future physicians. The combined impact of these Medicare and Medicaid cuts would severely hamper the ability of teaching hospitals to educate and train an adequate supply of physicians and avert a serious shortage."

The Health Resources and Services Administration was also on the receiving end of potential budget cuts, a proposal that would severely scale back the health professions program that supports training and education for health care providers from diverse backgrounds. The 2009 budget seeks $66 million from the program, a decrease of $557 million over last year's appropriated amount.

The budget also would decrease funding to the Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, which disburses resources to land-grant and rural colleges and universities. "We are very concerned about the deep and serious cuts to the education, research and extension programs in the Department of Agriculture," said Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "This comes at a critical time as institutions are building instructional and research capacity in areas such as energy, food safety and natural resources stewardship, which the budget proposal erodes."

One increase that surprised some observers was the proposed $1.7 billion for Department of Defense basic research, $270 million over last year's request. Koizumi called it "a very significant boost and what many people regard as a long-overdue recognition of the key role that the Department of Defense plays in the physical sciences." One factor that may have played a role, he suggested, was that the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was formerly the president of Texas A&M University, a prominent recipient of defense funding.

The budget also expands the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which spans several agencies and focuses on applications of the developing technologies to medicine, manufacturing and other fields. Its funding request for 2009 is $1.53 billion, over this year's enacted $1.49 billion.


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