R&D budget should ease biomed envy

President Clinton’s science budget for 2001 proposes to narrow a gap that has yawned in recent years between lusher funding for biomedicine and leaner support for physical sciences.

The proposed budget invests in efforts to arrange small clusters of atoms as tiny machines, such as this fine-motion controller. Institute for Molecular Manufacturing

Between 1994 and 2000, funding for the National Institutes of Health soared more than 40 percent. Yet the budget for the National Science Foundation, a major supporter of nonbiomedical research and development, didn’t grow even half that much, and research and development dwindled at NASA and the Departments of Defense and Energy.

“We need to have a balanced portfolio of investments,” argued presidential science advisor Neal Lane as he unveiled the 2001 proposal Feb. 7. Adjusted for inflation, the administration’s $85.3 billion R&D total would rise only 1.1 percent overall from fiscal year 2000 but has some sweet spots. The budget would boost NSF funding 17 percent to $3.5 billion, more than doubling the largest one-year NSF increase ever proposed.

Department of Energy R&D funding also would rise, as would NASA’s. A grinning Daniel S. Goldin told reporters, “This is the first time since I’ve been NASA administrator that our budget is going up and not down.” Even the beleaguered Mars program is slated for a boost.

Along with its effort to spread joy beyond biomedicine, the administration requests another NIH increase, a 3.5 percent rise of about $1 billion. With hopes high for a rough draft of the human genome within a year, “this is an unprecedented opportunity to really move on in molecular medicine,” explained Ruth Kirschstein, NIH acting director. Other NIH goals include a push to close health gaps between different groups.

R&D budgets would shrink at the Departments of Defense and Interior as well as at a variety of agencies including Veterans Affairs.

The Clinton administration’s farewell budget puts more emphasis on basic research than its early budgets did. Lane labeled $20.3 billion as basic-research funding, an increase of 4.7 percent over FY 2000. If enacted, that boost would mean basic-research investments have increased 52 percent since 1993.

“It’s a legacy-building budget,” comments Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. Earlier Clinton science budgets emphasized specific technologies or tighter goals. “Now, the effort is much more long-term,” he says.

With its abundance of interagency initiatives, the 2001 proposal expands a trend from earlier budgets. Lane highlighted the request for $495 million, a near doubling of research funds for nanotechnology, to develop ways to manipulate matter, molecule by molecule. He displayed a magnified logo made of 112 carbon monoxide molecules. The molecules spell out NANO USA with remarkable legibility for anyone who reads print 250-millionths the size of the cross section of a person’s hair.

More useful nano-feats might someday include developing ultrastrong materials and creating multi-terabit storage capacity for electronic information. Other interagency initiatives request $289 million for obtaining energy from biomass and $590 million for developing responses to weapons of mass destruction.

The budget proposal now goes to Congress for consideration—and contention. It “will be dead on arrival in both parties when it reaches Capitol Hill,” warns House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio).

Trying to look beyond the rhetoric of the annual budgetary joust, Koizumi speculates that the outcome will give the president much of the science money he wants. To put it simply, Koizumi says, “It’s an election year, and the surplus is big.”

Individual agencies highlighted special projects in the proposed budget. NASA’s portion includes $20 billion to start “Living with a Star,” a network of spacecraft to monitor solar activity. DOE’s R&D budget, rising 5.8 percent, includes funding for design and construction of some controversial big-science projects. The agency would spend $281 million on the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore (Calif.) National Laboratory would receive $74.1 million, pending a report on its financial needs due in June.

NSF has plenty of plans for its hoped-for boom. To foster an internationally competitive workforce, the agency proposes expanding research on learning. A new, pole-to-pole National Ecological Observatory Network would garner better data on the biology of the planet. Funding for information technology is slated for an increase from $126 million to $327 million. The boost would support research on novel approaches to computation, including molecular, DNA, and quantum computing.

The science proposals go on for pages in the bicep-building budget documents. As Koizumi puts it, this year “there’s something for everyone.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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