2012 budget offers pain and gain for R&D

Healthy increases proposed for most federal research agencies

President Obama sent the research community a valentine of sorts in his proposed 2012 federal budget. Sent to Congress on February 14, the budget was a pledge to fight for increased investment in research and education even as the president committed to a belt-tightening for most segments of federal spending.

WISH LIST The Obama administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 includes big increases for research in clean energy, environmental science and science education. T. Dube

The $3.7 trillion proposal allocates $147.9 billion to research and development in the coming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. That amounts to a small decrease from the 2011 fiscal year, after accounting for a projected 1.3 percent rate of inflation.  

Many R&D programs would see expanded or new funding to meet a number of administration goals, said presidential science adviser John Holdren, including:

  1. –doubling the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology
  2. –spurring development of clean energy technologies and providing national high-speed Internet access
  3. –improving science, technology, engineering and math education
  4. –and promoting private R&D investment by expanding the R&D tax credit and making it permanent.

To pay for those priorities, Holdren says, agencies were asked to make the painful determination of which programs were underperforming or of lower priority to the president’s national objective “to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

“I think it is especially encouraging to have a president who really supports R&D and education,” says Albert Teich, who directs science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “You wish every president saw things this way. What’s discouraging, of course, is that we face this huge deficit. And not everybody in Congress is going to agree with the president’s priorities. So there’s bound to be fights over it.”

How big a tussle? “That’s the question of the hour. And for the answer, I think you should ask the IBM computer on Jeopardy this week,” Teich says.

This “zero sum game” for federal R&D budgeting is novel, Teich notes. It also is virtually impossible to achieve, he adds, since a host of different congressional committees are responsible for eventually drafting the spending bills that will determine how money will be apportioned for individual agencies. And they don’t coordinate their spending plans to allow such a finely balanced ledger.

In some sense, every administration’s budget proposals are subject to extensive revision. They outline what the president hopes Congress will dole out to federal agencies. But this year’s blueprint may prove especially hard to sell in light of the problems that even a Democratic House and Senate had last year. They couldn’t agree on new spending laws by the start of the new fiscal year, so money has been allocated for the first five months of FY 2011 as part of a so-called continuing resolution, which largely holds spending to the previous year’s levels.

That spending resolution expires on March 4. What follows could chart a very different spending trajectory through the end of the fiscal year if the newly Republican-dominated House has its way. Already, leaders there have proposed $100 billion in cuts that would affect research at a number of agencies.

Who would feel the pain — or gain — under the Obama proposal varies considerably.

For instance, the Department of Education has been slated for a whopping 33.5 percent increase. But owing to its relatively small R&D component, this boost would amount to a rather paltry $124 million increase. Some $80 million of that boost would pay for research into developing better science, engineering and math teachers. The president has stated a goal of increasing their numbers by 100,000 within a decade.

Among agencies slated to experience a big dip in R&D funding, none stands to hurt more, in dollar terms, than the Department of Defense. The administration has targeted its programs for a nearly $5 billion drop. Part of the cutbacks would be made possible by terminating several major weapons systems that the administration claims “are experiencing significant development problems, unsustainable cost growth, or are not suited for today’s security challenges.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, slated for a 19 percent R&D decrease, would kill all spending on research grants that Congress had initially earmarked for funding and would cancel $224 million in construction funds. These adjustments would not only allow for some overall savings, but also free up a little money to boost spending for research on human nutrition, obesity reduction, food safety, climate change and crops that could be used to produce biofuels.

Below are summaries of the budget’s effects on the following areas of R&D:

Basic research
Earth and climate
Space and planetary research
Energy sciences
Biomedical research
Technology and environment

Basic research
R&D funding within the National Science Foundation would increase by some 16 percent under the proposed budget. “In these challenging fiscal times, when difficult financial choices have to be made to return our nation to solid financial footing, this budget request reflects the confidence that the president is placing in NSF as an agency,” said Subra Suresh, the agency’s director.

Much of the money is designated for interdisciplinary research and training, with an emphasis on clean-energy initiatives, cyber infrastructure and other programs such as robotics for health care and for deep-sea exploration. Research grants to non-NSF scientists might see a 27.8 percent increase over FY 2010 spending, including boosting the number of faculty career grants and graduate research fellowships.

More than $998 million is slated for the Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability portfolio, which would invest in research on clean energy, climate change and rapid response to extreme events. A new National Robotics Initiative would receive $30 million in the next fiscal year, and another $117 million would launch a Cyberstructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering, to ensure Internet and computer access to schools and the public. 

Several interdisciplinary programs, such as BioMaPS, (which is geared towards clean energy), and Science and Engineering Beyond Moore’s Law (which focuses on research into efficient computing, data storage and communication) also may receive hefty funds. Almost $200 million could go to research into advanced manufacturing, which includes robotics programs, nanomanufacturing and sensor-based “smart” manufacturing.

Earth and climate
The budget proposes nearly $5.5 billion for the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the second year in a row that the president has requested a significant uptick from the $4.86 billion NOAA received in FY 2010. 

Most of that increase would go to develop satellites vital for weather forecasting, said Monica Medina, the agency’s principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. For instance, the proposed budget asks for $1.07 billion for the planned Joint Polar Satellite System, the next generation of polar-orbiting satellites.

Also on the administration wish list: several climate initiatives, including $4.7 million to improve measurements of fossil fuel emissions nationwide and $2 million for improving the quality of weather forecasts as they relate to clean-energy projects. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, NOAA is asking for $2.9 million for research into such spills, plus a host of initiatives to assist coastal communities that depend on fishing. Overall, the budget would give NOAA $737 million to fund R&D programs on climate, weather and the study of ecosystems.

The U.S. Geological Survey would see an essentially flat budget of $1.12 billion. That would, however, include a $48 million increase so that USGS could assume sole management of the Landsat series of Earth-observing satellites, orbiters it had jointly managed with NASA.

Space and planetary research
NASA’s R&D budget would decline by 2.2 percent, to $9.8 billion, under the President’s proposed budget. “It’s difficult fiscal times and we had to make very difficult fiscal choices,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a press briefing on February 14.

NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, which an independent panel recently found had a minimum construction overrun of $1.5 billion, is now funded separately from other astrophysics missions, as the panel had suggested (SN Online: 11/11/10). Under the president’s plan, the James Webb would receive $374 million in 2012, which Bolden said would stabilize the mission but not stem the overrun. A new, later launch date for the telescope, which only a year ago was targeted for 2014, won’t be announced until the summer. Rick Howard, program director for the telescope at NASA in Washington, D.C., said it was unlikely to be launched before 2016 due to funding constraints.

As many astronomers had feared, money for the Webb telescope appears to have come at the expense of other astrophysics projects. For instance, the president’s proposed budget includes no money for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, recommended as the top astrophysics space mission by a recent National Academy of Science panel. The telescope would search for extrasolar planets and dark energy, the mysterious entity that is thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Although only three more flights of the space shuttle fleet are scheduled before it’s retired, funding for a new vehicle that would take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit — perhaps to a near-Earth asteroid — and a heavy-lift rocket that would launch that vehicle are slated to remain at roughly the current year’s level. That’s a 1.3 percent decline after inflation. “We’re going to have to make some small steps; we’re going to have to move incrementally,” Bolden said.

Funding for NASA’s earth science programs would decline from $1.802 billion in fiscal 2011 to $1.797 billion in fiscal 2012. The cuts would slow development of future missions such as the third generation of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and a satellite that would monitor changes in Earth’s temperature.

Energy sciences
The Department of Energy’s budget favors renewable technologies at the expense of fossil fuels. Funding for programs administered by its Office of Science would climb to $5.4 billion, a two-year increase of 6.2 percent. Funding for renewable energy technology would climb a whopping 70 percent. Within renewable R&D programs, only those focused on hydrogen would take a hit — of about $70 million, representing a 40 percent cut.

The new budget plan proposes $550 million for ARPA-E, which invests in high-risk, high-reward energy research. DOE would also double to six the number of Energy Innovation Hubs. These are cross-disciplinary collaborations that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu calls the “Apollo Projects of our time.” The new hubs would focus on smart-grid technologies, critical materials such as rare-earth elements and energy storage and batteries.

At a press briefing February 14, Chu said he expects the United States will soon lead the nuclear market in developing small modular reactors, an as-yet-unproven technology highlighted in the $380 million devoted to nuclear R&D. To encourage the building of more large nuclear power facilities, his agency is requesting a budget increase for loan guarantees for electric utilities — from $18 billion to $36 billion.

The president has issued a goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. In addition to $580 million for advanced-vehicle research, the current $7,500 tax credit for electric cars would become an instant rebate at the point of sale. DOE would also boost tax credits and grants to improve the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings, including $100 million designated for state and municipal facilities.

To help offset these costs, management expenses have been reduced across DOE programs, to the tune of $45 million. But the big cuts are in fossil fuels, where $418 million will be saved by zeroing out a dozen research programs — from clean coal research to fuel cells. Carbon storage and capture research would survive, receiving an increase of funding to $184 million. The president also repeats his call to end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. An unpopular idea in Congress, it could save some $3.6 billion.

Biomedical research
Research spending budgeted for the Department of Health and Human Services — almost all of which goes to the National Institutes of Health — is $32.3 billion, a marginal decrease from the current year. NIH research would continue to place strong emphasis on the use of genomics and biotechnology to take on Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, autism and other ailments.

NIH also proposes a new addition, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which would aim to shepherd laboratory findings as they are “translated” into drugs and diagnostics for practical use. “There’s been a great deluge of scientific discoveries that point toward new therapeutics,” says NIH Director Francis Collins. “This is a new arrival on the NIH stage.”

Technology and environment
The president would allocate $1.001 billion for research within the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. The gain represents a projected one-year jump of 7.2 percent.

“From NIST’s perspective, this is a historic budget request,” says NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. “It really reflects some strong White House leadership to make some very difficult priority-setting in a tough climate.”

Roughly $678.9 million would fund a diverse set of in-house research priorities, including a strong emphasis on manufacturing. That includes funding boosts in nanomanufacturing, biomanufacturing, clean manufacturing and advanced robotics.

The proposed budget also looks outward, encouraging collaborations with private industry. One new NIST program — the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia — would receive $12.3 million to identify problems in particular industries, and work with private firms to find a solution. A pilot program that targets semiconductors has been operating successfully for several years, Gallagher says. “It’s a very powerful approach, where industry is directly cost-sharing and working on a common research agenda,” he says.

“I think it’s particularly noteworthy that it [the increase] is occurring in a time when the administration is also proposing a fiscally responsible budget,” said Gallagher.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed research budget would sag 3.2 percent from the current fiscal year, but would boost the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program of grants to scientists in academic institutions. These increases would be offset by cuts in some of the agency’s other research areas, such as those affecting homeland security.

Research at EPA is getting a bit of a shakeup for a more integrated approach, looking at issues systemically rather than focusing as much on individual chemicals or problems. “Even our scientists can get more efficient,” quipped EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson when presenting the EPA budget proposal.

—With additional reporting by the Science News staff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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