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A Budget Too Small

18 December 2007 (All day)
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The White House and Congress delivered a heavy blow to the hopes of the U.S. science community yesterday as part of a long-delayed final agreement on the 2008 federal budget. As a result, what began as a year of soaring rhetoric in support of science seems likely to end with agency officials and research advocates shaking their heads and wondering what went wrong.

"It's like someone pulled the rug out from under us," says Samuel Rankin of the American Mathematical Society, who chairs the Coalition for National Science Funding. "It's pretty disappointing."

The $515 billion spending package takes a big bite out of President George W. Bush's promise--backed up by votes earlier this year in Congress--to give a substantial boost to the research budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Instead, the agencies get meager increases--a portion of which is eaten up by projects earmarked by legislators for their constituents--or across-the-board cuts. The package also makes moot the double-digit hikes authorized for research, education and training, and investment in innovation spelled out in a 6-month-old law, the America COMPETES Act, that the community fought hard to pass (ScienceNOW, 3 August). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive a 0.5% increase after high hopes for a slice that would at least keep up with inflation. Among the major science agencies, only NASA would receive the president's request--a 3% rise that is universally acknowledged as too little to handle all the projects in its pipeline.

The legislation was approved last night by the House of Representatives. Although there may be some wrangling about spending levels for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress is expected to complete work by the end of the week and send the legislation to the president, who has said he will sign it if there's sufficient funding for the wars. The money covers the 2008 fiscal year that began on 1 October.

Meanwhile, the blame game is already in full swing. The chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), acknowledges that the legislation falls short of his expectations. "The overall budget predicament forced appropriators to make some tough decisions," says Gordon. "Despite our best efforts and intentions, COMPETES programs--and many others--are feeling a lot of pain."

Presidential science adviser John Marburger says he's also disappointed by the terms of the bill. And it's clear where he places the blame. "I've certainly been [on Capitol Hill] pushing them," he says of his lobbying efforts with the Democratic Congress. "The most surprising aspect to me is the absence [in the bill] of any visible priority for basic research in the physical sciences." At the same time, Marburger says that the White House never considered designating the research budget as emergency spending--as a way to avoid a self-imposed spending cap. "You can't say that the absence of long-term basic research is an emergency," he says. "Short of that tactic," he adds, "what [more] is the president going to do?"

Science advocacy groups, however, hold both the executive and legislative branches of government responsible for the contents of the spending bill. "In exchange for an arbitrary cap on domestic spending and thousands of earmarks, the Administration and Congress have sacrificed investments in research and education that would help assure our nation's long-term national and economic security," says Robert Berdahl, president of the 62-member Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C. The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a coalition of business, scientific, and educational organizations, calls the bill a "step backward. ... The President and Congress, for all their stated support this year for making basic research in the physical sciences and engineering a top budget priority, ended up essentially cutting, or flat-funding, key science agencies."

Here are some details for selected research agencies:

NIH
After Bush vetoed legislation that would have given NIH a $1 billion increase, Congress gave it $329 million more, or a 1% raise, to $29.2 billion. Some $300 million is designated for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, however, leaving the biomedical research behemoth essentially at 2007 levels.

Congress made no big changes in how the appropriation will be distributed, although it did single out a few areas for special attention. For example, the National Children's Study--a controversial $3 billion effort to track the health of 100,000 infants from birth to age 21 that NIH says is too expensive to continue--will get an increase of $43 million, to $113 million, next year (Science, 9 February, p. 751). The NIH "common fund," a $496 million pot controlled by the director for cutting-edge research, will get $13 million more. And bricks-and-mortar spending will increase by $35 million, to $119 million.

Congress also formally endorsed open-access publishing, requiring "all investigators funded by the NIH" to submit final peer-reviewed manuscripts to NIH's PubMed Central for release on the Internet "no later than 12 months after the official date of publication."

NSF
The president had requested a $506 million boost for the $6 billion foundation--an increase of 8.7%--and both House and Senate panels had added to that total. Instead, the omnibus provides a total increase of only $117 million (after a $33 million rescission is applied to selected programs). NSF research directorates will receive 1.2% more, or $56 million, while its education programs would go up by 4%, or an additional $27 million. A pot of money for several new and continuing large facilities would receive a total of $24 million less than the $244 million that NSF had sought. "It's not good news," says NSF Director Arden Bement.

Despite the tight allocation, a few activities were singled out for special treatment. NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research--a $100 million effort to help have-not states--gets $8 million more than NSF had requested. The legislation also asked NSF's astronomy division to reconsider its planned cuts to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and to fully fund repair projects for NSF's collection of ground-based telescopes.

Bement says those two directives "will pinch" other programs and that the cuts in the new construction account will "stretch out" the schedules of some projects. He says that NSF "has no intention" of shutting down Arecibo but would like its backers to find other means of support. (Toward that end, another part of the bill directs NASA to ask the National Academies to examine the fate of the observatory.) One silver lining in the fiscal clouds is a $35 million boost, nearly the full request, to the $246 million NSF spends on salaries and operations, which includes its system of merit review. "I consider that to be a victory," says Bement, "and a sign that Congress realizes its importance."

NASA
For NASA the news is mixed. Although Congress approved its request for $17.3 billion, or 3.1% more than in 2007, the House and Senate conference rejected a Senate plan to add $1 billion to the space agency in order to cover rising costs in the space shuttle program. Those costs, combined with increases in the new Constellation rocket program and in several science projects, threaten to eat away at NASA's science and aeronautics endeavors. To cope with the rapidly increasing price tags, Congress wants NASA to work with the National Academies to come up with independent cost estimates before lawmakers approve future projects.

NASA science would receive $5.577 billion, a boost from 2007's $5.466 billion, including a $24 million boost for research and analysis of spacecraft data. But agency officials say that millions of dollars in pork projects--many of which are not directly related to the agency's mission--will limit their ability to address pressing needs, as will directives for funding specific programs. For example, legislators told the agency to spend $40 million to address the lack of future Earth science missions, $60 million for the Space Interferometry Mission--$38.4 million more than planned--and $5 million to determine the next outer-planet destination. Mars missions, meanwhile, received the full $625 million requested.

In the exploration effort, Congress told NASA to spend $42 million next year developing a robotic lunar lander, a mission that NASA had deleted from its planning because of cost constraints in the construction of the new rocket. It also allocated $13.5 million more for microgravity life and physical sciences.

Energy Department
The bill set the budget at DOE's Office of Science at $4.055 billion--$342 million short of the requested amount--and the shortfall comes mainly out of two programs: fusion sciences and high-energy physics. Congress realized some savings by allotting nothing for U.S. participation in the international fusion reactor experiment, ITER, which is set to begin construction next year in Cadarache, France (ScienceNOW, 21 November 2006). Although appropriators expressly forbid DOE to shuffle money from other programs to satisfy its planned $149 million contribution in 2008, Marburger predicts that the prohibition will not stand. "I can't see DOE not living up to its obligations," he says. "The department will have to use its money to stay in the project, so [the language] really just amounts to another earmark."

High-energy physics takes a bruising, too, receiving $88 million less than the requested $782 million. Congress nixed funding for the NOvA neutrino experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, which would be the lab's centerpiece experiment once the aging Tevatron collider shuts down. It cuts funding for research and development on the proposed International Linear Collider from $60 million to $15 million and for superconducting accelerator research from $24 million to $5 million. Because Fermilab researchers have already spent nearly $20 million on those projects in FY '08, work on them could immediately stop.

DOE's largest program, Basic Energy Sciences (BES), gets $1.282 billion, $217 million less than requested. That could translate into less beam time at the x-ray sources and other facilities BES runs for research in materials science, structural biology, chemistry, and other areas. In contrast, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program gets $354 million, $14 million more that requested, and the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program receives $549 million, $17 million more than the White House asked for, for more work in nuclear medicine.

Homeland Security
The omnibus bill maintains funding for university research supported by the Department of Homeland Security at its current level of $49 million. That amount would override a $10 million cut requested by the president.

NIST
The omnibus wipes out all but $6 million of a scheduled double-digit boost to the $435 million budget of NIST's core research labs. Agency officials say they are still digesting the impact of that flat funding on their 2008 programs. At the same time, the legislation preserves the renamed National Innovation Program but cuts $9 million from the $79 million now being spent on precompetitive industrial research under what had been called the Advanced Technology Program.

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