The boffo science budget won’t last

Speakers at today’s Forum on Science and Technology Policy, hosted in Washington, D.C., by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spoke time and again about how well science and tech budgets are making out under the new Obama administration. Enjoy this largesse while it lasts, the speakers said — because it may prove just a momentary blip.

This year’s major science-budget uptick and the circumstances driving it are highly “unusual,” observes Stan Collender of Qorvis Communications. “In my 35-plus years of watching the budget, I don’t quite ever remember anything like this.”

The forum invited the impressions of Collender, a one-time stand-up comic, because he also has a reputation as an expert on the U.S. and congressional budget process. His bio notes he’s “one of only a handful of people who has worked for the House and Senate Budget Committees.” Having spent his formative years as a committee staffer — from 1975 to ’80 — Collender remains a dogged budget wonk.

The electorate, owing to the current fiscal meltdown and escalating jobless rate, has given the president, this year, “the absolute political permission to increase the deficit,” Collender says. “Obama was elected with one mandate — only one. And that was to fix the economy.” With interest rates at next to zero and consumer spending still tepid, he says, “there’s only really one tool available . . . increase the deficit because no one else is going to spend and add to the economy.”

That deficit is projected to reach $1.75 trillion this year, he says — a figure that even a year ago “would have been completely unimaginable.” At that time, economists were anxious over a record half-trillion-dollar debt. Collender offered a mini-tutorial to explain why, owing to not-so-transparent accounting techniques, the Bush administration racked up pretty high actual deficits (from not factoring in costs for war spending and certain other asterisked budget extras). The result, he argued, is that true spending in the last Bush budget dwarfed the “official” $500-plus billion deficit that was reported.

Notwithstanding, Collender said, even more federal spending is needed in the short run to kick-start the moribund U.S. economy.

But — and here’s the kicker — President Obama has said he plans to start paying back the deficit as soon as the economy picks up. And in general, the public tends to support that ideal.

So be prepared, Collender said: “At some point over the next year, deficit reduction will come into vogue.” And when that happens, he says the amount of money available for research will go down — unless other programs are cut to pay for science and tech.

The question he asked the forum attendees: Can you justify science spending as being more important than most other discretionary programs? Because if you can’t, he says, no one will.

Toward that end, he recommended that scientists and engineers begin engaging in an “inoculation strategy” — without question, a strange term. But the gist of his premise was that researchers must begin to proactively explain — and in “simple English” — just what they’re doing, what they hope to learn, and what long-term payoffs the public is likely to gain. Benefits don’t have to be new products. They could be improvements in our quality of- ife, a cleaner environment, even a better understanding of how the world works.

So, he warned, within a year or two money just might suddenly dry up for anything that isn’t deemed absolutely essential. And any researcher hoping that his or her research will survive the cut had better already have begun making a compelling case for why those studies are indispensable.

For a comic, he left us with a distinctly unfunny prospect.

Janet Raloff

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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