Budget Boosts and Busts: R&D for Defense, NASA garner funding rise

The five-volume, 2,866-page budget proposal forwarded to Congress by President Bush on Feb. 3 contains a record-setting request for federal research and development. Together, NASA and the Department of Defense are slated to receive about 80 percent of the suggested increase in R&D funding. Other big winners in this year’s budget include the National Science Foundation and the newly established Department of Homeland Security. Among budget losers are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce.

Of the $2.23 trillion in proposed federal expenditures planned for fiscal year (FY) 2004, which starts Oct. 1, nearly $123 billion would fund R&D. That’s an increase of about $8 billion over last year’s proposals, or just over 5 percent after accounting for the expected rate of inflation. John H. Marburger, the President’s science adviser, says the new budget’s research dollars reflect two main priorities: protecting people in the United States against the threat of terrorism and strengthening the economy. “There’s a sharpened need to fund the highest priorities,” he notes. “That’s good for science.”

However, says Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, “the administration’s budget proposal for science and technology is disappointing, although perhaps unsurprising given the budgetary constraints . . . . Many science programs do not even keep up with inflation.”

In dollar terms, the Defense Department wins big in the new budget: Its research and development programs capture $62.8 billion, a $5.3 billion boost over last year’s proposals and a whopping 51 percent of next year’s suggested total for R&D funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services, whose R&D budget goes almost entirely to the National Institutes of Health, stands to garner only a meager jump in funding from this year’s budget. Although large in dollar terms, the agency’s suggested $565 million increase tallies, after inflation, as a 0.6 percent improvement over last year. This marginal increase comes on the heels of an FY 2003 budget proposal in which R&D funding for NIH soared by 13.3 percent (SN: 2/9/02, p. 85: Protection money: Budget favors defense and bioterror research).

As in last year’s budget proposal, NIH’s biodefense efforts would get a shot of fresh research dollars. Part of these funds is directed to studies on blocking the effects of botulism toxin, understanding pathogens likely to be used in bioterror attacks, and analyzing how the human immune system responds to dangerous microbes.

Many medical scientists are unhappy with the essentially flat overall budget for NIH.

“The administration’s proposed funding level . . . is highly inadequate and will decrease and slow progress in many areas of biomedical research,” says Janet Shoemaker of the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C.

In the new budget proposal, NASA snagged $938 million more than the President had asked Congress for last year. If approved, the space agency’s R&D programs stand to grow by 7.7 percent. However, all of the President’s budget proposals were assembled before the Feb. 1 disaster in which the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew were lost while reentering Earth’s atmosphere (see “Columbia Disaster: Why did the space shuttle burn up?” in this week’s issue: Columbia Disaster: Why did the space shuttle burn up?).

“It’s way too early to tell how the loss of Columbia will affect the R&D budget,” says Sarah Keegan, a spokesperson at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Energy is slated for a $459 million increase, which includes increased funding–about $720 million over the next 5 years–for the FreedomFUEL program. That program will focus on developing the technologies and infrastructure needed to produce, store, and distribute hydrogen fuel for future vehicles and power plants.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) outpaced all other departments in proposed percentage increase for R&D dollars. The newest cabinet-level department in Washington, officially launched just last month, would get a $240 million, 29.6 percent inflation-adjusted boost over what was proposed last year for the 22 segments of other agencies that will be consolidated into DHS.

More than $900 million of the DHS R&D budget would fund projects to find better ways to combat terrorism. Another $2.3 billion would fund similar research within other departments of government.

Additional multiagency R&D efforts include nearly $1.75 billion for climate-change research and $847 million to fund nanotechnology studies.

The National Science Foundation was tapped to get just over $4 billion for its research and development projects next year, a $370 million, 8.4 percent increase over last year’s budget proposal. A large chunk of the money will fund new research facilities, including a 1-cubic-kilometer neutrino detector embedded in the Antarctic ice sheet, a giant radiotelescope array in the Chilean Andes, and a network of seismic and other geophysical instruments spanning North America.

“We need to renew our science and engineering infrastructure across the board,” says foundation director Rita R. Colwell. “If you’re going to learn more about the cosmos, you’ve got to have the instrumentation to do it.”

Among the agencies that lose R&D funding in this budget are the Department of Commerce, which includes the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

That department is scheduled to take a 10 percent hit. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency’s expenditures are proposed to drop by 12.6 percent.

The Department of Agriculture will harvest a mere 0.2 percent more than it did in last year’s budget proposal.


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