Security a Top Priority in New Budget

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Can science make us more secure? The answer is an emphatic yes, according to the 2004 budget request to Congress released today by President George W. Bush. The spending plan calls for giving significant raises to military and homeland security programs to develop everything from better drugs to deadlier weapons. Most other research programs would grow more slowly--or not at all.

Overall, the $2.23 trillion blueprint would push federal spending on research and development to a record $123 billion. More than half of the total--$67 billion--would go to the Pentagon. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive another one-quarter, $27.6 billion, with all other civilian science agencies dividing the rest.

The National Science Foundation appears to be the biggest winner among agencies funding basic research, with a request of $5.5 billion, a 9% boost over last year's White House request. But that increase may be illusory in practical terms (ScienceNOW, 18 December 2002), because Congress has not yet finalized this year's budget, which could be about the same amount.

Growth at NIH would slow significantly under the White House plan. The proposed budget of 27.6 billion represents a 2% increase over this year's anticipated budget, but it is down from the 15% annual increases the agency has received over the last 5 years. To sustain a steady stream of more than 10,000 new grants, NIH officials say they will divert construction funds. Biomedical advocates, meanwhile, have called on Congress to give NIH a 10% increase.

The Department of Energy's science programs would remain essentially flat at $3.3 billion. But more than $100 million in new funds will be available for research, officials say, because of the completion of a major construction project. Some of that cash will be funneled into the creation of four new nanotechnology centers.

At NASA, officials called off a planned budget briefing in the wake of the Columbia disaster. White House plans specify a 5% increase for the agency's science and technology programs, to $9.2 billion. But some of that plan may have to be rethought.

For homeland security, the Administration says it is requesting $3.2 billion overall for research programs. Nearly half of that is earmarked for NIH and public health programs. The new Department of Homeland Security would get $1 billion, of which $350 million would go to jump-start a new agency aimed at funding high-risk research into new sensors and security devices.

At the Pentagon, the R&D budget would grow 5% overall, to $61.8 billion. But the military's basic research budget would remain static, at about $1.3 billion. Those funds are a primary source for university researchers working in math, engineering, and computer science.

Science advocates are giving the request mixed reviews, and they are appealing to Congress to perk up budgets they believe the Administration ignored. But with war looming and the economy struggling, one science lobbyist predicts that "this could be a very difficult year."

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2004 budget request

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