Obama seeks R&D funding boost in tough times

Proposed FY 2014 budget lifts nondefense spending 9 percent

President Barack Obama has drawn a line in the sand in his ongoing fight with budget-cutting lawmakers when it comes to future federal funding for research and development. He’s calling for reversing recent spending cuts to most sectors of R&D spending and adding new funds for many areas next year — despite tough fiscal times.

The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts in October, would boost federal dollars for civilian R&D by 9 percent compared with 2012, before accounting for inflation. Defense R&D would take a 6 percent cut, mostly in development and applied research. R&D funding overall would rise about 1 percent, from $140.9 billion in 2012 to $142.8 billion in 2014. That’s actually a modest decrease after adjusting for the estimated 4 percent inflation over the period.

The Obama budget uses 2012 rather than 2013 as the baseline for comparison for procedural reasons. So the plan does not factor in the sequester — Washington-speak for a series of recent automatic spending cuts that reduce research funding by about 8 percent between now and 2017. That means Obama’s proposed R&D funding increases could be considered even bigger, because they assume the sequester cuts will be reversed.

Obama has repeatedly called for boosting research funding (with modest success); this year is no exception. The proposal is largely symbolic, however, standing little chance of getting enough support in a divided Congress. The House science committee’s chairman, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, says that the budget “gets a failing grade,” in part because it boosts spending in a time of mounting debt.

But science advocates are raising the pressure on Congress not to cut research dollars. As a group of Nobel laureates said in a recent letter to lawmakers, “Our concern is for the younger generation who will be behind the innovations and earn the Prizes of the future.”

Big winners in the president’s budget include the Department of Energy, whose funding would rise 18 percent. The National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey and National Institute of Standards and Technology would also see healthy increases. The Health and Human Services Department, which houses the National Institutes of Health, would see a slight increase from 2012 — again, all before accounting for inflation.

Then there are losers. In addition to defense-related development and applied research, the National Nanotechnology Initiative would take a 9 percent hit.

“This is not the budget we would want if financial times were better,” explains White House science adviser John Holdren, who hopes the proposal can “preserve key investments” in R&D despite making some tough choices on cuts.

The White House frames the R&D budget as helping fuel innovation to drive the economy, pointing to continuing federal support for advanced manufacturing and science education, as well as research into clean energy, aerospace and biomedicine. The budget also boosts funding for research to adapt and respond to climate change.

But it’s unclear if Congress will have the appetite even to reverse the cuts mandated by the sequester. If that doesn’t happen, R&D budgets will keep falling in every major area.

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