Lean Times: Proposed budget keeps science spending slim

President Bush’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2006 budget devotes $132 billion to research and development, approximately the same amount as the government plans to spend in FY 2005. Although administration spokespeople asserted that science spending would grow 1 percent under the President’s 2006 plan, spending would decrease 1.4 percent after expected inflation—leading to another year of belt tightening for most federal science agencies.

“While this is an austere budget, the President recognizes the importance of investing in science and technology,” says Marcus Peacock, program associate director for the federal Office of Management and Budget. “Our priorities are the same as last year: winning the war on terror, homeland defense, continuing the growth of an economy that’s continuing to grow.”

Accordingly, the Department of Defense would get the lion’s share of proposed R&D funding, $70.8 billion, although that’s a 1.3 percent decrease from 2005 after inflation. Research in the Department of Homeland Security would get the biggest percentage boost, 21.4 percent.

John H. Marburger, director of the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy, says that researchers shouldn’t downplay science devoted to security operations. Benefits cross over into general society from these research programs, such as those investigating nanotechnology or medical applications, he notes.

Several science agencies that have been favored in recent years would receive little or no funding increases in 2006. For example, the National Science Foundation would receive $4.2 billion, up just 0.8 percent after inflation.

“I think we’re going to get more and more behind before we can get back on that track,” says NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr.

Though NSF’s overall funding would be held nearly steady, some major spending shifts would be required by proposals from the President. NSF would take responsibility from the Coast Guard for three Arctic and Antarctic icebreaking missions that cost $48 million per year to operate. Another $46 million would be channeled to programs to improve accountability and oversight of NSF operations. And the agency would spend $76 million more than in 2005 to build the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, a radio astronomy observatory under construction in Chile, and other research facilities.

To compensate for these increases, NSF’s education and human resources budget would be cut by 12.4 percent, which would mean less spending on curriculum development and training for elementary and high school teachers.

Compared with recent years, spending at the National Institutes of Health may also be tight. The 2006 budget calls for an increase of $163 million, which amounts to a 1.4 percent cut after inflation. In contrast, Congress and the Clinton and Bush administrations doubled NIH’s overall budget between 1997 and 2003.

“It was exciting when [the NIH budget] was doubling. It’s not as exciting when it’s flat,” says Theodore Poehler, vice provost of research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Poehler predicts that a tight budget will increase the already intense competition among scientists for NIH grants. Such a struggle could result in a lower success rate for first-time grant applicants and even established scientists, he says.

NASA would fare better than most R&D agencies under the President’s proposed 2006 budget. With $11.5 billion dedicated to R&D, the increase would support an initiative announced by President Bush 13 months ago to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and to Mars sometime later.

However, in a move that has already sparked controversy, the budget sounds the death knell for the Hubble Space Telescope, providing no money to repair or upgrade the 14-year-old orbiting observatory. Of the $93 million earmarked for Hubble, $75 million would go to developing a craft that would steer the observatory into the ocean once Hubble’s batteries and gyroscopes stop working, which astronomers predict will happen around 2007.

“I would love to save the Hubble, but the decision needs to be made in the context of the overall NASA budget,” says House Science Committee Chairperson Sherwood Boehlert (R–N.Y.).

Analysts had predicted that the President’s budget for R&D would be slim compared with spending in previous years, and they were right, says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting a better budget,” Koizumi says. “The President and Congress had already made it very clear that they were going to clamp down on discretionary domestic spending. This budget is just following through on what they said they would do.”

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