Obama’s budget would boost science

In his not-exactly-State-of-the-Union address to Congress Tuesday night, the President Obama promised that his administration would boost support for science. This morning, we got an inkling of what he was referring to. The official “outline” of the first Obama budget was released at 11 a.m. And this broad-brush blueprint asks Congress to fatten the National Science Foundation, for example, with an extra $7 billion — a hefty 16 percent increase over last year’s funding.

The new budget document argues that “investments in science and technology foster economic growth, create millions of high-tech, high-wage jobs that allow American workers to lead the global economy” and more. For that reason, the budget document says, the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2010 is aimed at beginning to move toward a doubling of federal funding for basic research over the next 10 years. The actual increase in the coming year would be $950 million, it says.

The Energy Department would see lots of boosts. Most of the dollar figures mentioned in today’s budget document reflect money already targeted to be spent from the stimulus. This includes $3.4 billion for low-carbon coal technologies, including the carbon sequestration. But in addition to the $1.6 billion in the recently passed economic stimulus package for basic energy research at DOE, the new budget would provide “substantially increased support for the [DOE] Office of Science.” What does that mean? We’ll have to wait a month or so for the actual line-item budget blueprint to see. But we already know that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been a big booster for this, something he views as his agency’s crown jewel.

Words you wouldn’t have seen in George W. Bush’s budget documents: statements like the president’s intention to make “climate change research and education a priority.” Yep, that’s what it says in today’s document. Toward that end, there’s not only money in the NSF budget for climate science, but also the call for spending $1.3 billion for development and lofting of “vital weather satellites and climate sensors.” (I guess some of that will have to go toward replacing the carbon-monitoring satellite that crashed shortly after takeoff a couple days ago.)

There is a curious and fairly long section of text under the Environmental Protection Agency heading that describes plans to begin “a comprehensive approach to transform our energy supply and slow global warming.” Global warming has never been a big EPA issue. Most efforts to limit our carbon footprint are managed through programs at Commerce and Energy. But in today’s outline, the administration describes its hope to jump-start an ambitious cap-and-trade program for greenhouse-gas emissions. This program would look to cut greenhouse emissions 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and approximately 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Talks of cap-and-trade proposals have been floating around for years. It looks like this president is committed to finally making something happen.

In his Tuesday night address, the president hinted at big boosts for biomedical research. Today’s outline calls for investing more than $6 billion in research at the National Institutes of Health “as part of the administration’s multi-year commitment to double cancer research funding.” Today’s budget outline explains that this influx of funds would “build upon the unprecedented $10 billion” for NIH research in the economic stimulus.

The president’s new budget also advocates expanding research that compares the effectiveness of competing medical treatments — something you can read more about in the upcoming March 14 print Science News, set to be available online Friday.

The EPA would get a boost in funding, but largely for infrastructure improvements and things like a new Great Lakes restoration program.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (once called the National Bureau of Standards) is a small but important Commerce Department agency charged with making sure new “yardsticks” exist for helping develop new technologies — ones that will keep the nation competitive with other economic powerhouses. In recent years, NIST has been marginalized, with large sections of it targeted for elimination (but usually rescued by Congress, sometimes at the 11th hour). In a turnabout, the Obama administration acknowledges that NIST’s health is important to the nation’s technology infrastructure — infrastructure being a priority in the stimulus. Under the president’s budget plan, NIST would get money to keep important programs alive and would be designated the headquarters for administering $4.7 billion in stimulus money “to expand broadband deployment, adoption, and data collection.”

Something you don’t see in today’s budget outline is any mention of beefing up research programs at the Department of Agriculture. USDA’s research service has been hurting in recent years. And a failure to boast about turning that around suggests that the president won’t be trying to turn that around — at least not in the coming year.

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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