'Tough Love' Budget for Science

February 15, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Federal money for science research would continue flowing next year under President Obama's spending plan for 2012, which was released Monday.

The priorities outlined in Obama's budget affirmed the protected status for science and research amid calls to cut back on spending and reduce deficits. They also echoed one of the most cited rhetorical phrases ("win the future") from last month's State of the Union speech. Obama's $3.7 trillion total budget calls for dedicating billions of additional dollars to energy research, information technology, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

In all, the president's budget includes $66.8 billion in non-defense research and development, which represents an increase of $4.1 billion, or 6.5 percent, over actual appropriations in 2010. The levels for the current year are still undetermined -- and, in fact, face an uncertain future following a House resolution introduced Friday that would cut $100 billion from Obama's 2011 budget. Obama's budget increases for 2011 and 2012 outstrip the 2.7 percent rate of inflation over the past two years.

"All of these investments are being made in the context of a tough love budget," said John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during a briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science here Monday afternoon. "These are the kinds of trade-offs we wish we didn't have to make, but which we do have to make."

Those trade-offs made winners and losers out of agencies and programs. The biggest winners, as it relates to research, included the National Science Foundation ($7.8 billion in proposed appropriations, or a 13 percent increase over the 2010 enacted level in today's dollars); the Department of Energy's Office of Science ($5.4 billion, up 10.7 percent); and the National Institute of Standards and Technology's intramural laboratories ($764 million, up 15.1 percent). Officials described research on clean energy, nanotechnology, climate change, wireless infrastructure and cybersecurity as being among the areas of greatest interest.

About $3.4 billion, in total, would be spent on STEM education through the NSF and other agencies. New initiatives include $100 million ($80 million from the Department of Education and $20 million from NSF) to recruit, train and prepare 100,000 science and technology teachers over the next decade. The budget sets out an increase of $62 million, or $198 million in total, to pay for 2,000 graduate research fellowships through the NSF. Another $90 million is proposed for the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Department of Education. Modeled, in part, on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-ED would sponsor the vetting of public and private research and development efforts in education, and develop new technology to improve education in general.

The National Institutes of Health, the biggest government funder of academic research, would remain essentially flat after accounting for inflation. The budget projects a 2.4 percent increase, or $745 million over the 2010 enacted level, to create a proposed $31.8 billion appropriation for 2012.

Those on the losing end of the science research budget would include the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would see $144 million, or 12.4 percent, slashed from its $1 billion research budget. The research budget for the Department of Agriculture would fall to $2.2 billion by cutting lower priority programs, including earmarks for research. Increased money would flow to the agency's higher priorities: nutrition, food safety and security, sustainable bioenergy, climate change and obesity reduction. While the Department of Defense would see a 5 percent overall reduction in research and development to $76.6 billion, the research money that universities are most likely to tap is on the upswing. The 2012 budget lines for basic, applied and advanced technology research at Defense would increase by 3.5 percent to $12.25 billion compared to the 2011 request. For the second year in a row, non-security discretionary spending across agencies would be frozen at 2010 levels and continue through 2015. (This paragraph has been changed to supply more information).

Proposed Federal Spending on Scientific Research, 2012

Agency Obama 2012
budget request (in millions)
% Change from 2010 enacted
Department of Defense $76,600 -5%
National Institutes of Health 31,800 2.4%
NASA 18,700 0%
Department of Energy 13,000 19.9%
National Science Foundation 7,800 13%
Nat'l Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 5,500 15.7%
Department of Agriculture 2,200 -17%
Department of Homeland Security 1,100 18.8%
Department of Veterans Affairs 1,018 12.4%
National Inst. of Standards and Technology 764 15.1%
Environmental Protection Agency 579 -1.9%
Department of Education 480 36%

"We all would have liked to be able to do more," said Holdren, while acknowledging the almost-too-good-to-be-true position of science research in a budget that aims to cut $1.1 trillion elsewhere over the next decade. "The budget contains more than anyone thought possible."

Advocates for science research seemed to realize their good fortune and hailed Obama's budget plan. The budget, said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, "freez[es] discretionary spending and tak[es] other steps to reduce deficits, invests in research that will help us grow our economy, conquer disease, achieve greater energy independence, and strengthen our national security."

Any efforts to curtail the deficit through spending cuts must be done in a smart and strategic way, which, Berdahl continued in a statement, is not the path set out by the House plan released last week. "That measure would truly harm this nation’s capacity for innovation by slashing research spending for nearly every agency that sponsors scientific research," he said. "This is exactly the wrong approach to deficit reduction, and it is our hope that the Senate, the President, and ultimately the House will agree on deficit reduction measures that enhance, not stifle, innovation and long-term economic growth." About 60 percent of the money for research, and basic research in particular, would reach colleges and universities, according to the AAU.

The Science Coalition, a group of 50 of the leading public and private research universities in the United States, used economic terms to defend science research. In a statement, Chris Carter, associate director of Princeton University’s office of government affairs and president of the coalition, cited the immediate and wider ripple effects of federal investment in university research -- which the coalition estimates as comprising nearly 100,000 jobs and $100 billion in annual revenues from just 100 institutions it surveyed.

"Research creates jobs directly -- for the principal investigators, research teams, lab technicians, materials and equipment manufacturers and others who help support the work -- and indirectly, through innovations that lead to new technologies, new industries and new companies," Carter said.

It is unclear how this plan will square with House Republican leadership intent on turning back spending. A spokesman for Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, declined to comment Monday, citing a desire to hear Holdren's testimony before the committee on Thursday.

At Monday's session, Holdren repeatedly expressed confidence that the president's budget for science and research was responsible and reasonable, and would ultimately prevail if cuts are proposed. "I don't think Republicans will vote for those cuts once they see what they actually mean," he said.

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