Funding Science, Smartly

As House appropriators examine boom in federal research money and foresee more, they weigh priorities and techniques for avoiding mistakes of the past.
March 4, 2009

Rep. John Culberson's Web site shouts that the country should "just say no to federal spending," and the Texas Republican boasted at a House of Representatives hearing Tuesday that he has a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union because he consistently opposes wasteful government spending. But Culberson makes an exception, he told his colleagues on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related, for spending on scientific research and science education, given the contribution those things make to the country's economic stability and national security.

"We should find a way to wall off [the National Science Foundation] and other agencies in a way that will protect" their budgets, Culberson said. "We should be looking for funding that is stable and predictable in the years to come."

The fact that even proud budget hawks like Culberson see themselves as friends of science shows the full extent to which academic and other research has become a federal priority in recent years, a trend that is likely to be reinforced and probably hastened under a president widely seen as a friend of science. It was not surprising, then, that Tuesday's hearing before the House panel -- the first of several in the next few days -- was largely the kind of lovefest that most discussions of federal science funding tend to become on Capitol Hill.

But while there was no real dissent from Culberson's view that federal spending on science is crucial and should be protected and even expanded, lawmakers and the hearing's lone witness, President Ralph J. Cicerone of the National Academy of Sciences, acknowledged that there would not be a limitless supply of money available for science programs, and that difficult choices about priorities would have to be made.

And Cicerone and some lawmakers agreed that federal agencies and universities needed, as they managed the sudden, massive infusion of money from the economic stimulus package, to learn lessons from the doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health that the government provided a decade ago, to avoid repeating problems that emerged in the wake of that effort.

The economic stimulus package enacted by Congress last month injected at least $16 billion into biomedical, energy and other forms of research over two years, both to produce and save jobs for researchers in the short term and to build the country's economic capacity beyond that. The stimulus funds go a long way toward filling gaps that Congress and the Bush administration have left in recent years in the goal, laid out in President Bush's 2006 American Competitiveness Initiative (which morphed into Congress's America COMPETES act) to double spending on the physical sciences within a decade.

Cicerone enthusiastically welcomed the new funding, and said he hoped it would become the new baseline for annual funding for the various science agencies in question, since it is "largely going into meeting the unfunded proposals that were judged to be in the top line by the NSF and other agencies in the last few years."

But under questioning from Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-Va.), the subcommittee's chairman, Cicerone conceded that there were risks inherent in a sudden inflow of money into the research pipeline if it was not wisely managed. One need only look back to the aftermath of the doubling of the NIH budget, Cicerone said, when we "got into a pickle now where they're oversubscribed [in terms of demand for grants] now that we're back to level funding." The agency arguably financed too many projects that required longterm funds to sustain, and many universities built up their research programs in ways that put them in a bind when the flow of funds slowed.

"We need to make sure that the number of longterm commitments made with these new funds does not exceed funding that's going to be in place after the two or three years end," Cicerone said Tuesday about the stimulus funds.

Steady growth rather than occasional bursts and busts would be better for the scientific enterprise, Cicerone and several lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing agreed. "Bouncing around from year to year is terribly destructive," Culberson said, suggesting that the spending subcommittee propose legislation that would create an independent panel of scientists and engineers that would make annual recommendations to Congress -- separate from the process in which the executive branch proposes a budget each winter -- "with no political agenda." Mollohan, the chairman, was noncommittal about the idea.

Pressed by Mollohan and others for how much money the government ought to be spending on science research and education, Cicerone was clearly reluctant to throw out figures; danger loomed that he would look either greedy or unambitious in appearing to speak for the science establishment.

But he made clear that he would welcome a way of ensuring growth for federal spending on science, perhaps, he said, through a mechanism that tied spending to "the number of highly competitive proposals" agencies receive, to ensure that there is enough money to cover all research proposals that scientific peer review processes grade above a certain level.

When Mollohan asked what was the appropriate "end point" for growth in federal science funds, Cicerone said that "we are so far away from that level that it's hard to say."

But in response to questioning from some of the subcommittee's Republicans, he acknowledged that academics would continue to have to make the case to taxpayers that increased support for the sciences will benefit them. "It's hard to say that your tax bill has just gone up because we want to support science," Cicerone said.

"I feel that way myself sometimes," he said, quickly adding, "but I'm willing to pay the taxes."


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