Federal R&D Budget: On Boosts and Earmarks

Some people have argued that science hasn’t fared well under George W. Bush. The President’s science advisor, John H. Marburger, III, begs to differ.

He laid out numbers, colorful graphs, and pie charts this morning to argue that when it comes to science and technology during the past eight years, “there can’t be any question but that this country has significantly boosted its spending.” Indeed, Marburger noted, since the Clinton administration, the nation has witnessed a 42 percent increase in investment in research and development – and that’s after accounting for inflation.

Some two-thirds of the U.S. budget each year goes to pay for what are called federal mandates. These are big programs like Social Security and Medicare. Congress divvies up what’s left from a pot known as the discretionary part of the budget. And that’s where R&D funding comes from.

That science and tech funding has remained quite stable “is extraordinary,” Marburger said, because ”the discretionary budget is under constant and growing pressure from the large mandated portion of the budget.” Indeed, he augured that it’s unlikely the President’s successors will do any better. In fact, he suggested the current spending may constitute a peak, in real – or inflation-adjusted – dollars.

“The funding might not be where you like it,” he acknowledged – in defense weaponry, say, not in agriculture or in disciplines that would help the nation’s flagging manufacturing sectors. Still, the science advisor maintained, federal investment has been steadily creeping up and remains robust.

This morning, as he has for the past six years, Marburger offered the keynote address at the annual Science & Technology Forum. It’s sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to probe trends – and issues affecting trends – in federal-research spending.

The longest serving science advisor in history, Marburger didn’t leave without a few polite rants. First, he complained that Congress wasn’t doing its job. The lawmakers are supposed to budget spending for each fiscal year (preferably along guidelines suggested in the President’s blueprint). But for the past two years, Congress failed to sign off on spending bills by the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1. This year threatens to see more of the same, Marburger said.

Instead of lawmakers focusing on Presidential campaigns and who’s likely to succeed Bush, he argued that the best thing “would be for Congress to pass the damn budget.”

He also complained that while funding seems strong overall, Congress has ignored the President’s pet programs, ones aimed at boosting industrial competitiveness. The President’s spending blueprints for the past two years asked lawmakers to put budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s labs all on a track to double within 10 years. Instead, they’re still stalled pretty much where they’d been before the President’s competitive initiative was unveiled.

Finally, Marburger took umbrage at R&D earmarks, those projects that lawmakers insert in the budget to benefit companies, labs, and universities in their districts. “I’m willing to stipulate that they’re all worthy,” he said. But there are gazillions of worthy projects and money to fund only a tiny share of them. Although well-intentioned, earmarks have the potential to inadvertently diminish the effectiveness of important, established programs by stealing some of their intended financing, he charged.

So how much money goes to earmarks? For the first time, the AAAS’s budget analysts tallied them. And those inserted into last year’s federal science and technology budgets totaled a whopping $4.5 billion.

Now for a few quick water-cooler stats, courtesy of Kei Koizumi, the AAAS federal-budget maven:

— $1 in every $7 in discretionary spending by Uncle Sam goes to fund research and development programs.

— 2,526 earmarks were inserted into the fiscal year 2008 R&D budget
— agencies benefitting most from earmarks: by far, the Defense Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture
      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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