Despite lean times, Obama wants R&D hikes

Proposed FY 2013 federal budget would stall nonmandated spending overall, but science and tech would climb

Research into climate change and advanced manufacturing will see substantially increased federal support next year if President Obama gets his way, as will education in the STEM fields — science, technology, education and mathematics. The president’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2013, unveiled February 13, calls for slight increases across most research spending categories. In some areas, the recommended spending boosts would vastly outpace inflation.

ADD ‘EM UP Proposed 2013 federal spending on science

Proposed spending on research and development generally, both civilian and defense, would total $140.8 billion for fiscal year 2013. That’s virtually the same as this year’s $138.9 billion after accounting for estimated inflation of 1.4 percent. (All subsequent funding changes have been adjusted to account for this projected inflation.) But the nondefense portion of that total would rise nearly $3.1 billion to $64.9 billion, a net increase of 3.5 percent.

“This budget follows similar priorities of previous Obama budgets,” says veteran budget analyst Albert Teich, who until his retirement in December had been director of science and policy programs with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “And they’re worthy priorities,” he adds. “Obama has been as good a friend of science and technology as we’ve ever seen in the White House.”

But the president faces a hostile Congress and a very constrained fiscal environment. Teich predicts that various aspects of the president’s 2013 spending plan will have a difficult — if not impossible — time surviving the hatchets of congressional budget cutters. “The bigger fights will probably be where they’ve been in the past,” he says: energy research and climate change.

The president slated some programs for dramatic increases. The multiagency global change research program would increase more than 4 percent, funding climate research at agencies including NASA (at $1.47 billion), the Energy Department (at $230 million) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (at roughly $340 million).

During a press briefing, White House science adviser John Holdren emphasized the president’s commitment to revitalizing the nation’s manufacturing enterprise. The Obama administration wants to turn around years of flagging investments by directing $2.2 billion in federal dollars into this area — a whopping 17.6 percent increase over FY 2012 spending.

“As soon as the administration focused on innovation, the role that R&D plays in promoting economic growth and prosperity, it immediately became clear we were eventually going to be talking about manufacturing,” noted Patrick Gallagher, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. With more than two-thirds of all engineers outside universities and the federal government employed by manufacturing-based firms, this sector “supports the lion’s share of private sector investments in research and development,” he noted.

Below are summaries of proposals for specific areas of R&D in the FY 2013 budget:

Basic research
Space and planetary research
Technology and manufacturing
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education
Biomedical research
Security and defense
Earth and climate

Basic research

The proposed budget would give the National Science Foundation $7.4 billion, a relatively generous 3.4 percent increase over the estimated 2012 budget. The funding would be channeled to fund basic research and educational programs and pay for the ongoing construction of science facilities.

A little under half of the money would be awarded as grants to researchers. The proposal also provides funding to continue construction on four research facilities: the world’s largest solar telescope, a project for measuring gravitational waves, an ecological observation network and an ocean-monitoring system. 

The budget also gives the Department of Energy’s Office of Science about $5 billion for its programs, an increase of 1 percent compared with the amount allocated by Congress for 2012.

Space and planetary research

NASA’s proposed budget is roughly flat for 2013, with the president requesting $17.7 billion for the space agency — the lowest total in the last four years, and one that is not projected to rise between now and 2017.

But even though that’s only about 2 percent less than in 2012, funds within the agency’s divisions would see major redistributions. Hardest hit would be planetary sciences, which would be dealt a 22 percent cut, more than $300 million.  Among the affected planetary programs is a now-canceled mission with the European Space Agency that would have sent probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018 and culminated with the return of Martian rocks to Earth.

The slashed planetary budget also means no funding for new flagship missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus or the giant and enigmatic planet Uranus. NASA scientists aren’t ready to write off those mission concepts yet, but will be focusing on planning smaller, less expensive missions to Earth’s planetary neighbors. A redesigned mission to Mars or to an asteroid might still fly before 2020.

But not every project within the agency is hurting. The over-budget James Webb Space Telescope has been allocated $627 million for 2013. The Space Technology program, which designs such things as zero-gravity propulsion systems, would see a $126 million increase. Funding for commercial spaceflight would more than double, with the president requesting $829.7 million for the development of vehicles that could ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit. And the goal of reaching deep space is finding financial backing with the agency’s Orion space capsule and gigantic rocket sitting on almost $3 billion.

Technology and manufacturing

One of the biggest new programs in the proposed fiscal 2013 R&D budget, the $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing and Innovation, would fund research in advanced manufacturing through the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the departments of Energy and Defense.

In addition to funding through the National Network for Manufacturing, the National Science Foundation would receive money for research into clean energy development and enhanced cybersecurity. 

Roughly $300 million would be allocated for NIST to create a new Wireless Innovation Fund as part of the American Jobs Act. Aimed at increasing public safety, the fund would improve broadband access.

About $708 million would fund in-house labs at NIST, where research priorities for the upcoming year include advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and nanotechnology.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education

NSF’s requested budget emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math education priorities. The proposed budget funds teacher training programs and a joint venture with the Department of Education aimed at figuring out the best ways to teach mathematics. Funding will be awarded to researchers who develop programs, and incentives will be given to entities that incorporate the new methods into course work.


Funding for the National Institutes of Health stays flat under the proposal, at about $31 billion.

“In a constrained fiscal environment …  NIH is maintained at the FY 2012 level of $30.9 billion, reflecting a priority for biomedical research as an investment that promises to deliver better health and drive economic growth,” NIH director Francis Collins said in a statement. 

The funds will support research both on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., and at institutions elsewhere.

Some of the proposed spending will go toward the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, an agency created last year to speed the journey of basic laboratory discoveries into usable pharmaceuticals and medical devices.


President Obama wants an extra $514 million for research into renewable energy and energy efficiency under the aegis of the Department of Energy, a smaller hike than the one turned down by Congress last year. Much of this new money would go to cutting the costs of electric vehicles, geothermal energy and biomass fuels. Funding for solar and wind energy would sag slightly.

A manufacturing initiative with a $290 million price tag would cut factory production costs by commercializing technologies that use less energy. Projects to make buildings more energy-efficient would get 40 percent more funding. Also on the DOE’s wish list: a new research hub devoted to rethinking the electrical grid and $45 million for investigating the risks of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency would share this funding for research on the practice, which recovers oil and natural gas by injecting fluids deep underground.

To pay for all of this with only a 1.8 percent budget increase to $27.2 billion, the DOE has eliminated projects that either failed to meet milestones or did so well that they were taken up by the private sector. The president has also repeated his annual call to cut subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. This idea, unpopular with Congress, could save about $4 billion.

Security and Defense

Efforts to monitor nuclear warheads around the world would be stepped up through increases in the Department of Energy’s budget. So would funds for maintaining the United States’ aging arsenal and discarding surpluses of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.

The Department of Defense’s proposed research and development funds total $68.4 billion, slightly down from last year’s $71.3 billion. Within that, science and technology’s proposed funding is $11.73 billion. This includes $2.07 billion for basic research in areas such as cybersecurity, robotics, information access and biodefense, down slightly from $2.1 billion in 2012. The request for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, known for its ambitious research, is $2.76 billion.

Earth and Climate

Work on climate change and land use within the U.S. Geological Survey would grow by 5.2 percent. The survey’s ecosystems research funds would increase 8.8 percent, as researchers tackle such puzzles as how to manage invasive Asian carp in the upper Mississippi River and intruders in the Everglades such as the Burmese python.

The survey’s budget for natural hazards would include increases for ocean science and studies of earthquake hazards on the U.S. East Coast, with increases partially offset by trimming some projects on volcanic hazards and other geology.

As usual, a fair chunk of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposed $5.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2013 would go to satellites. The budget proposes spending $1.8 billion on operating and developing orbiters to study weather, climate and other global changes.

The remainder of the NOAA budget goes to a wide variety of programs the includes fisheries stock assessments, helping coastal communities adapt to climate change and development of a National Ocean Policy, an overarching plan to tackle the health of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.

NOAA has not always gotten what the administration has asked for, even when it hasn’t involved new spending. Over the past few years one of the top priorities of agency head Jane Lubchenco has been a National Climate Service, to provide climate-related information to users such as regional officials. Those plans foundered last year, apparently permanently, when Congress told the agency it couldn’t establish the office.

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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