Science receives a budget bonanza

But some increases rely heavily on stimulus package, a one-time spending boost

The Obama administration rolled out new details on May 7 about its blueprint for federal spending in the coming year. And no matter how you cut it, science comes out a big winner. The current proposal is to spend $147.6 billion on research and development during the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 — $555 million more than Congress enacted for the current fiscal year.

FY2010 BUDGET PROPOSALS Table shows proposed federal spending on research and technology for the fiscal year beginning October 1. The Obama administration released new details of this spending blueprint on May 7. More details are expected next week. Adapted from OSTP

This spending would be supplemented by the already approved Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the economic-stimulus package. It directs the government to pump $20 billion into R&D, money to be spent between now and the end of fiscal year 2010, said White House science adviser John Holdren at a press briefing held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. Most of this is being directed into basic and applied research, he added.

For instance, the stimulus directs that the National Institutes of Health spend $10 billion on biomedical research and laboratory upgrades or construction. It provides another $1 billion to be shared between NIH and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality on studies that compare either the effectiveness of different treatments, or the effectiveness of one treatment for different populations.

The National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology together received $5.2 billion from the stimulus alone — largely for basic research, facilities improvements and better instrumentation. This funding keeps these three agencies on track for a 10-year doubling of their budgets by 2016, Holdren said.

Bottom line: “We in the science and technology community have done better than just about any other constituencies in the budget,” Holdren says. But, he adds, “We think that’s good for the country, not just good for us.”

Not surprisingly, many science-policy wonks and budget watchers have become almost giddy with what they’ve seen happening in Washington this year. To date, the president and Congress collaborated in planning for a veritable spending spree on research in science and engineering fields. 

If Congress approves the president’s spending plan, NASA, for instance, would get a 10 percent increase next year. This increase would include a $630 million increase for space exploration studies, a $456 million increase for its science budget and a $253-plus million increase for aeronautics programs, including one to develop quieter, less polluting aircraft, NASA’s acting administrator Christopher Scolese reported at a NASA briefing May 7.

“It is an unprecedented year,” says Albert Teich, director of Science & Policy Programs for AAAS. He notes that, besides approving the economic stimulus, Congress took the unusual step of passing a budget resolution — targeted spending levels and revenues for the year — for the 2010 fiscal year before the administration unveiled its detailed spending plan.

“There’s also been a dramatic shift in research priorities” from those espoused by the Bush White House, he observes. Obama is backing climate research, green energy, physical science and engineering, biomedical studies, and science and math training from prekindergarten through graduate school. “The only kind of shift I can compare this to, at least in magnitude, is the one that took place between [Jimmy] Carter and [Ronald] Reagan. With Reagan you saw the same degree of change,” Teich says, “although it was in the opposite direction” — to cut research.

Without the stimulus supplement, spending for NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality remains fairly flat from this year to next, notes Stacie Propst, vice president for science policy with Research! America, based in Alexandria, Va. For NIH, the projected fiscal year 2010 spending without the stimulus is $30.2 billion. After accounting for inflation, she says, that’s slightly less than was appropriated by Congress for the current year. So it appears, she says, that the administration expects “to use the Recovery Act funding as a bridge to next year.”

The same goes for the CDC. Its projected budget for next year — $6.8 billion — is $300 million less than for this year, she notes, until the $300 million supplement supplied to it through the Recovery Act is added in.

“We’re concerned,” she says, because if the baseline budgets of these research agencies don’t climb dramatically by 2011, when the stimulus money disappears, “there’s going to be drop-off in all of the jobs that the Recovery Act saved.”

Teich agrees. The president has said that he plans to begin paying back the deficit with tough belt-tightening across the federal government as soon as the economy picks up. And the stimulus spending was sold as a one-shot investment, Teich notes. “So I think we’re going to face some very difficult times in coming years — 2011 and 2012.”

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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