Federal R&D downturn preceded ‘08 economic crash

Federal scientists and those whose work is funded out of the federal coffers have been lamenting that their budgets are inadequate. In fact, new data show, the buying power of what they get has been falling — as have federal outlays.

The National Science Foundation released figures, today (albeit the report is dated January), indicating that federal research and development spending in the year ending October 2008 was $3.5 billion lower than in the previous 12-month period. The figures include money spent on infrastructure (facilities and major equipment). Adjust for inflation, NSF says, and you’ll find that the fiscal year 2008 federal budget bought about 4.8 percent less than did spending in the previous year.

 So how big a pot of money are we talking about? The feds spent slightly more than $113 billion on R&D last year (we’re in fiscal year 2009 since last October)
— with $27.7 billion going to fund basic research
— roughly $27 billion for applied research
— $56.6 billion for development projects
— and nearly $1.9 billion for facilities and plant upgrades.

Sounds like big money. But again, adjusted for inflation, it’s more than 7 percent less than what Uncle Sam spent on R&D in FY ’05.

The Energy Department fared relatively well in 2008. For the first time, NSF notes, DOE’s research budget (roughly $6.5 billion) exceeded that of the Defense Department (almost $6.1 billion). That made DOE’s R&D spending second only to the Department of Health and Human Services — the National Institutes of Health’s parent agency. Indeed, NIH is a big child, having gobbled up 96.3 percent of HHS’s R&D budget last year — $27.7 billion.

The big losers in 2008: Agriculture Department R&D spending fell 7.8 percent (before inflation) — to $1.3 billion, and NASA’s spending fell 3.4 percent — to roughly $3.2 billion.

That said, most investors would love to have experienced merely single-digit drops in their portfolios for the year ending last October. In this context, the research funding hits don’t sound so egregious — except that they started when the economy was ostensibly robust.

So what can we expect in the future? Tune in here, come March (and after), when President Obama releases his spending blueprint — and Congress responds with a general thumbs up or down.

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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