April 30, 2009

Obama Pushes Science Agenda

Michael Feldman

In his whirlwind first 100 days in office, President Obama has managed to push some pretty controversial policies. One of his less provocative moves is his commitment to science and technology funding. After eight years in the wilderness, the R&D community finally has an advocate in the White House.

On Monday, speaking at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, the President made the case for why government R&D funding is so important, especially for basic research. “The fact is an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all,” said Obama. “And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not. And that’s why the private sector generally under-invests in basic science, and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research — because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.” Well, that’s socialism for you.

Overall, Obama pledged to raise US R&D funding to 3 percent of GDP, which represents an additional $70 billion. Of course, that’s just pocket change compared to the financial bailout, which could run into the trillions before its all over. But for American researchers, that extra $70 billion is real money.

Looking at the numbers a little closer, the extra funding isn’t going to come entirely out of the fed’s pocket, since generally about two thirds of R&D spending comes from industry, local governments, and higher education. So that 3 percent Obama is talking about is more like 1 percent from where he’s sitting, and really just a few tenths of a percent increase from what the federal government is spending now. Presumably part of the increase in spending on the non-federal side would come about by making the R&D tax credit permanent, which the administration has asked for in the federal budget for next year.

The 3 percent figure wouldn’t even put the US at the top of the heap. As a percentage of GDP, Israel, Sweden, Finland, Japan, South Korea all out-research the Yanks, but in absolute R&D expenditures we’re still number one. The US accounts for about a third of global R&D ($962 billion in 2007), and that ratio isn’t going to change substantially in the next few years. The importance of the 3 percent commitment is that it puts the US on a better trajectory, and one more befitting a nation that is so dependent on science and technology for its economic well-being.

As part of Obama’s focus on renewable and alternative energy sources, government has also begun funding the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E is a new organization within the DOE that is devoted to carrying out high-risk/high-reward energy research with an eye toward moving new technologies quickly into the commercial sector. In the funding announcement (PDF), the agency’s mission was summarized thusly: “ARPA-E will fund scientists and technologists to take an immature technology that promises to make a large impact on the ARPA-E Mission Areas … and develop it beyond the ‘valley of death’ that prevents many transformational new technologies from becoming a market reality.” The agency will initially receive $400 million in economic stimulus funding.

Along the same lines, the White House also announced that the DOE Office of Science will invest $777 million in Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) over the next five years. Unlike the ARPA-E work, the EFRCs will be doing more basic research, and will center on biofuels, advanced nuclear energy systems, and carbon capture and sequestration. The researchers will have access to DOE supercomputers and other agency resources. Of the initial 46 awards for 2009, 31 are led by universities, 12 by DOE labs, two by non-profits, and one by a corporate research lab. The Recovery Act is providing $277 million in funding, with 100 million coming from the FY09 Federal Budget, and the remaining $400 million from out-year funding subject to future appropriations.

The broader agenda of the administration is to double funding for the three big R&D federal agencies — the National Science Foundation, the DOE’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology — over the next 10 years. The implementation, of course, will depend upon future budgets and appropriations. But it’s hard to remember a time where the stars were better aligned for a sustained R&D push. With a popular president that believes deeply in the value of science, the absence of an effective opposition party in Congress, and a public that is increasingly infatuated with all things geeky, this may be a rare opportunity indeed.