U.S. Science Funding Hits a Political Wall

By Michael Feldman

February 22, 2008

The next 12 months is shaping up to be a disappointing year for the U.S. science education and research community. The expected expansion of federal funding for science did not come to pass. Despite bipartisan consensus to support the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which was designed to double federal funding for science education and research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy Office (DOE) of Science over the next seven years, the amounts allocated in the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations bill fell woefully short. The ACI agenda, most of which was turned into law in the 2007 COMPETES Act, was essentially ignored when it came time to dole out the money for 2008.

Compared to the proposed ACI funding levels, the FY2008 appropriations were $548 million (92 percent) short for the DOE, $397 million (77 percent) short for the NSF, and $72 million (70 percent) short for the NIST. The funding shortfalls were the result of a series of political calculations that trumped the generally bipartisan support for the ACI goals. When President Bush decided to set a cap on the 2008 appropriations, the Democrat-controlled Congress proceeded to challenge him with an appropriations proposal that was $23 billion over the cap. Bush threatened to veto it, and when the Democrats figured they couldn’t get enough Republican support for a veto override, they dialed down the appropriations to just $11 billion over the cap. At that level, the science education and research funding was still intact. But Bush and the GOP held the line and forced the Dems to meet the original cap. Despite the support of the President and the GOP for the ACI agenda, they decided to it was more important to be fiscally conservative than to follow through with the funding goals.

In fact, bipartisanship actually worked against science funding this year. Given the constraints of the budget cap, both Democrats and Republicans decided to push partisan earmarks and spending into the appropriations bill to score political points with their constituents. The large proposed increased in science appropriation became juicy targets for both Democrats and Republicans to get their partisan agendas funded.

“Their calculation was if we are being forced to submit to this arbitrarily low [cap], which the President set, then we’re going to make sure that our priorities are the first things that get taken care of,” said Peter Harsha, Director of Government Affairs, Computing Research Association (CRA). “And doing that didn’t leave any significant money left for science funding.”

This caused the DOE to freeze funding for university researchers. According to the agency, reduced budgets will result in the elimination of funding for more than 4,300 Ph.D.’s, graduate students, and others from what was originally envisioned in their own FY2008 request. For the NSF, there would be 230 fewer graduate research fellowships and 1,000 fewer basic research projects than originally planned, while NIST will have to make due with 300 fewer scientists and engineers. According to Cameron Wilson at USACM’s Technology Policy Blog, the funding for NSF research and NIST labs are even below inflation, which will translate into actual cutbacks from 2007 levels.

It wasn’t all bad news though. The DOE Office of Science still managed an increase of 6.8 percent over 2007 — not as generous as the 18 percent increase in the earlier House and Senate bills, but still above inflation. Perhaps more surprising is that the Office of Science’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program got a 25 percent bump in funding compared to last year, which was 3.2 percent above the President’s request. Since ASCR develops and manages the high-end computing resources of DOE’s R&D efforts, undoubtedly some of this money will end up in supercomputer purchases, but a lot will be left to start new programs and enhance current ones. According to Harsha, this ASCR funding includes $19.5 million to “continue the Department’s participation in the [DARPA] High Productivity Computing Systems partnership” and an increase of $7.7 million for Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility to “maintain the planned budget and cost schedule.”

But overall funding across the agencies for long-term basic research was inadequate, resulting in some Draconian choices, like the abandonment of the U.S. contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion program. Other areas that were hard hit in the DOE include the International Linear Collider, National Sychrotron Light Source-II, Spallation Neutron Source and Linear Coherent Light Source programs.

In remarks prepared for the Universities Research Association, Council of Presidents on January 30, DOE Under Secretary for Science Raymond L. Orbach, characterized the failure to fund basic science research as “a perilous moment in the history of funding for science in the United States.” He believes that at a time when other countries are heavily investing in scientific research and increasing their technology workforces, U.S. will be unable to maintain its technology leadership without increased investment, and the both the general public and the science community has become complacent.

“[W]e scientists tend to regard the proposed increases for the physical sciences under the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act as an entitlement,” warned Orbach. “That attitude has failed us. Our lawmakers have clearly signaled where they want to put taxpayer dollars. If we are to avoid a repeat in FY 09 of what happened in FY 08, we need to actively make the case for the support of long-term basic research across those fields that have historically represented U.S. world leadership. Our fellow citizens must understand that these investments in basic research have held the key to America’s prosperity and strength in modern times.”

The FY09 budgets for both the NSF and DOE are already on the table. The administration has proposed a 20 percent increase in the DOE Office of Science budget over the FY08 appropriations, for a total of $4.7 billion. The NSF has proposed $6.85 billion — a 13 percent increase over 2008.

But with the 2008 elections coming up in November, it is quite possible that FY09 funding won’t be decided this year. Bush has given Congress the ultimatum that unless earmarks are cut in half, he won’t sign the FY09 appropriations bill. The pattern of using continuing resolutions to fund the government between the end of the fiscal year (September 30) and the beginning of the calendar year is the most likely outcome. Realistically, any earmark cutting in an election year will be delayed until the elections determine the composition of Congress and the choice of the new U.S. president. The final FY09 appropriations bill may not be signed until after the new president is inaugurated in January.

The good news is that with the introduction of the ACI agenda two years ago, science education and research advocates have been able to garner bipartisan support in both houses and Congress. But thus far they’ve been unable to close the deal with appropriations. Organizations like the CRA are hoping the FY08 funding fiasco is a one-off problem. But since science funding is just a piece of overall discretionary spending, it becomes wrapped up in the political end game that accompanies appropriations. Thus far, bipartisan support has not proved to be the answer. Support for science education and research is broad but not deep. Given the enduring federal deficit and relatively low profile of the ACI agenda in the U.S. electorate, getting adequate funding for basic research will continue to be a precarious until at least one of these problems gets resolved.

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