Science budgets look rosy, AAAS finds

Many science-policy wonks and budget watchers have become almost giddy with what they’ve seen happening in Washington this year. The president and Congress have collaborated in targeting substantial increases for federal investments in research and development in science and engineering fields. “Unprecedented” is how some speakers described those increases yesterday during an annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Perennial science-budget watchers tend to be intimately familiar with the AAAS website. There, Al Teich and his team have for many, many years been posting analyses of investments by type, federal agency and congressional action. And the first of the year’s detailed analyses typically debut at the society’s spring forum.

Teich did the honors, on the first day of the forum, yesterday, sharing tables, graphs and interpretations of same. They showed that in all but a very few instances, Congress is appropriating at least as much money as had been proposed by the Bush administration for research and development — and in most cases, substantially more.

One big winner: The Energy Department’s energy-research program, slated to receive a 21 percent increase over fiscal year 2008, where the Bush administration had proposed a spending increase for it of less than 1 percent.

Similarly, where the Bush proposal had advocated cutting funding for R&D within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — home to much climate research — Congress has elected to increase spending by about 8 percent. The Agriculture Department, home to nutrition, crop and livestock studies, had been slated to lose about 10 percent in its R&D funding; instead, it’s now due to climb slightly more than 5 percent.

All of these changes, Teich pointed out, exclude investments for federal R&D contained in the emergency economic-stimulus package — formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (which passed into law earlier this year). Indeed, “even without [stimulus money], every major R&D agency receives an increase above inflation,” he noted.

Of course, Obama’s economic-stimulus funding has proved pivotal to bumping up funding in several targeted areas — innovation-targeted areas related to basic research, biomedicine, energy R&D and climate studies. And that explains, in part, Teich said, how budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Energy Department Office of Science have ended up on track to double within the next seven to 10 years.

The end result, one Teich table showed, has been a sharp uptick in funding for fiscal year 2009 of about $15 billion — to roughly $73 billion (in inflation-adjusted values). Overall, stimulus funds account for most of the increase.

But as budget analyst Stan Collender noted yesterday in his talk at the forum, these numbers may not last into a period of concerted deficit reduction, which should begin as soon as the economy starts to solidly pick up. Indeed, Teich closed his talk with a caution that long-term funding for sustained R&D funding is anything but certain, beginning in fiscal year 2011. Which begins soon — in 17 months.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that the president’s formal fiscal year 2010 budget proposal may emerge as early as next Tuesday.

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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