Downturn in Federal Research Spending

February 6, 2009

In urging lawmakers to crank up spending on scientific research in the economic stimulus package Congress is now debating, university lobbyists have focused their rhetoric on the potential of the money to produce jobs and "expand the knowledge base and produce the discoveries that will sustain and improve the nation’s economic competitiveness," as the Association of American Universities put it in a letter to senators this week. Given the bill's purpose and the political necessities of the times, that focus makes sense.

But part of the reason Congressional backers of the additional research support are pushing it -- and the major reason potential recipients of the funds want them so badly -- is that they believe federal backing for scientific studies have been insufficient in recent years. A National Science Foundation report released Thursday confirms their thesis, finding that federal spending on research and development declined in real terms from 2007 to 2008 and that 2008 funds for basic research dropped to the lowest level since 2002 in constant dollars.

After rising by an average annual rate of 6.9 percent from the 1996 fiscal year through 2003, when the government committed to doubling spending on biomedical research, federal agencies' spending on research have fallen by an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the years since. That has occurred despite a push by Congress and the Bush administration -- with rhetoric not matched by dollars -- to double spending on the physical sciences.

Spending on basic research declined almost as much, by an average of 1.9 percent a year from 2005 to 2008. The proportion of total R&D spending directed to basic research fell to 24.4 percent in 2008, down from 26.3 percent in 2002, according to the NSF's data.

Federal Obligations for Research and Development, 1990–2008

    Research
Fiscal year All Research and Development (millions, in current dollars) Total Basic Applied
1990 $65,831 $21,622 $11,286 $10,337
1995 70,443 28,434 13,877 14,557
2000a 77,356 38,471 19,570 18,901
2001 84,003 44,714 21,958 22,756
2002 90,158 48,007 23,668 24,338
2003 97,928 51,072 24,751 26,320
2004 105,371 53,358 26,121 27,237
2005 112,995 53,738 27,140 26,598
2006b 112,271 53,536 26,585 26,951
2007 preliminary 116,700 55,075 27,477 27,598
2008 projected 113,213 54,709 27,721 26,988
  All R&D (millions, in constant 2000 dollars)
1990 $81,023 $26,612 $13,890 $12,722
1995 76,419 30,847 15,054 15,792
2000a 77,356 38,471 19,570 18,901
2001 82,066 43,683 21,452 22,231
2002 86,424 46,019 22,688 23,330
2003 92,012 47,986 23,256 24,730
2004 96,493 48,863 23,920 24,942
2005 100,261 47,683 24,082 23,601
2006b 96,428 45,981 22,833 23,148
2007 (preliminary) 97,616 46,068 22,983 23,085
2008 (projected) 92,904 44,895 22,748 22,147

Federal Obligations for Research by Agency, 2006-8, in Millions of Dollars

  2006 2007 (preliminary) 2008 (projected)
Department of Agriculture $2,031 $2,088 $1,807
--Agricultural Research Service 1,021 963 919
--Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service 645 743 536
--Forest Service 264 283 245
--Other 100 99 106
Department of Defense 5,752 6,856 6,083
--Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency 1,185 1,833 1,713
--Air Force 1,351 1,482 1,389
--Army 1,453 1,628 1,155
--Navy 1,208 1,364 1,161
--Other 555 549 666
Department of Energy 5,720 6,055 6,487
--Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy 211 343 368
--Fossil Energy 218 207 217
--National Nuclear Security Administration 2,219 2,087 2,204
--Defense Programs 2,076 1,951 2,067
--Nonproliferation and Verification 143 136 136
--Office of Science 2,818 3,257 3,391
--Other 254 161 307
       
Department of Health and Human Services 28,680 28,721 28,781
National Institutes of Health 27,566 27,625 27,708
Other 1,114 1,096 1,073
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 3,272 3,261 3,195
National Science Foundation 3,791 4,051 4,358

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