Physical Sciences Win Out Over Biomedicine in 2009 Budget Proposal

4 February 2008 (All day)

President George W. Bush today proposed a flat budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2009 while asking for double-digit increases at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The numbers, part of his request to Congress for the 2009 fiscal year that begins 1 October, mirror previous budgets by emphasizing the physical sciences at the expense of the biomedical sciences.

The dichotomy has drawn a convoluted response from the scientific community, encapsulated by this comment from Robert Berdahl, president of the 62-member Association of American Universities. "Question: Is the President's budget good or bad for the vital research and education that is performed by America's research universities? Answer: Yes."

Presidential science adviser John Marburger says the increases for the physical sciences reflect the Administration's belief that a previous 5-year doubling of the NIH budget, which ended in 2003, threw the federal government's science portfolio out of whack. That's why, he noted, the Administration's request for a doubling of the physical sciences in its American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) would occur over 10 years. But Marburger also thinks that the biomedical community should be able to do more research with the same amount of money. "Frankly, I think that an argument can be made that better management [of NIH] can bring about much better productivity even with flat resources," he told reporters at a budget briefing. "The private sector does it all the time."

Predictably, that view doesn't sit well with biomedical scientists. "We reject the premise that funding science in one area or at one agency must come at the expense of another," says Bob Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. "There is no doubt that NSF and DOE merit the significant increases the president has proposed. But neglecting NIH at the same time is failing to grasp the interconnectedness of science."

Science lobbyists are counting on Congress to sustain the president's ACI request while pumping up NIH's flat budget. Last year, the community got the worst of both worlds with a last-minute cut in the DOE science and NSF budgets, whereas NIH's budget failed to keep up with inflation for the fifth straight year.

Here are highlights from this year's 2009 budget request for selected science agencies:

Despite the prospect of continued flat funding at $29.5 billion, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni sent a clear message to legislators about his priorities. "It's very important for NIH to keep its pipeline of new investigators up," Zerhouni told Science. "That's my first priority." Success rates on grants, he predicts, will remain the same or decline slightly, depending upon applications. The number of grants supported would stay flat. The budget also requests an increase of $20 million, to $1.7 billion, for NIH's biodefense research programs. "We really needed to buttress that," Zerhouni says.

The new budget includes no funding for the National Children's Study, a congressional favorite, and would redistribute its $111 million among the 27 institutes and centers. Even with that change, however, increases for individual institutes would stay far below the rate of inflation. Yet Zerhouni says that biomedical scientists should be grateful the situation isn't worse, given that the overall discretionary budget for the Department of Health and Human Services would decline by 2% in the president's request.

A 13.6% budget increase, to $6.85 billion, is NSF's reward for funding much of the country's academic research in the physical sciences. If approved by Congress, the boost would also salve the wounds left after legislators at the last minute took away most of an 8% presidential request in 2008 that Congress had further pumped up during the year-long budget process.

The agency's six research directorates would be the big winners, with a 16% boost to $5.59 billion led by 20% hikes for math and physical sciences, engineering, and computer sciences. But NSF rocked the ocean sciences community by deciding to pull its $331 million Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) off the table pending a final review later this year. "It was a big surprise to us," says Steve Bohlen of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. "NSF had given us every indication that we were ready to go" after the agency conducted a preliminary review of the project in December.

NSF Director Arden Bement says that his decision last year to hold firm to a no-cost-overruns policy led to bumping OOI from the queue of projects in NSF's major research facilities account until OOI leaders had nailed down all aspects of the project. Bohlen notes that a delay will likely mean a higher overall cost for the project, an argument that Bement accepts. "I'd be lying if I said anything else," Bement told Science. "But it's a balancing act; we also need to follow our rules."

Elsewhere at the foundation, a 25% increase in the number of graduate research fellowships, to 3075, would drive an overall 8.9% increase in the $725 million education directorate. At the same time, an $11 million undergraduate scholarship program to entice science and math majors to become teachers would rise by less than $1 million. That's despite a reauthorization of NSF's program signed into law last summer, which called for a 10-fold increase in the program.

Under pressure after recent food and drug safety failures, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was one of the few agencies to enjoy a boost, with the Administration recommending a 5.7% increase to $2.4 billion. That figure includes more than $600 million in user fees paid mainly by drug companies. Under the president's plan, $42 million of the new money would go to strengthening food safety by better preventing and responding to food-borne illnesses and monitoring the nation's food supply. An extra $36 million would go toward drug safety activities, bringing total funding there to $389 million.

Funding for the agency's core research labs, which explore research on atomic clocks and other measurement techniques and standards, would grow 22%, to $634 million. That growth includes four new research initiatives: $12 million for toxicology research on nanoparticles, $10 million to improve biosciences measurement technologies, $5 million for cyber security, and nearly $6 million for optical communications and computing.

But not all compass needles are pointing north. As with previous budgets submitted by Republican Administrations, the current budget zeros out the Technology Innovation Program, the follow-on to the Advanced Technology Program, that aims to boost emerging technologies through cost sharing between government and industry. Also on the hit list this year is a small business manufacturing assistance program, which was cut to $4 million from $90 million last year. The cuts "reflect some difficult decisions about priorities," says NIST's acting director James Turner.

The 17.5% rise for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, to $4.72 billion, would restore the deepest cuts inflicted by the 2008 omnibus budget, which have led to the early termination of some experiments and scheduled layoffs (ScienceNOW, 18 December 2007). It also overcomes $125 million in congressional earmarks, money added by legislators for favorite projects.

The 2009 request includes $214.5 million for work on the international fusion experiment, ITER, after Congress zeroed out the promised $150 million U.S. contribution for 2008 (ScienceNOW, 21 December 2007). "That would allow us to be fully engaged in ITER again," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who warned that if current funding levels continue through 2009, "we're done" as participants in the project.

The request also includes $805 million for high-energy physics, 17% more than in 2008, which itself was a 6% cut from the $732 million spent in 2007. Because of that cut, officials at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, say they will have to lay off as many as 200 of the lab's 1900 scientists, technicians, and staff. The 2009 budget might help to reduce the layoff, but given the uncertainty in whether it would pass, officials still expect to lay off at least 150, says Fermilab Director Pier Oddone.

The biggest winner would be DOE's Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program, which supports research on materials sciences, condensed matter physics, chemistry, nanoscience and related fields. BES would receive $1.57 billion, 24% more than the $1.27 billion appropriated for 2008. That would allow BES to run its four synchrotron x-ray sources, three neutron sources, and five nanoscale science centers full time. Serving thousands of researchers from DOE's national labs and universities, such "user facilities" are running as much as 20% below capacity this year. BES would also spend $630 million on "core research," which includes research grants. That's a whopping 40% increase over the $450 million spent in 2008. The budget also provides money for new initiatives, such as $100 million for Energy Frontier Research Centers, which will focus on the basic science needed to develop breakthrough energy technologies.

The proposed 1.8% increase, to $17.6 billion, will still leave the space agency with too little money to keep its science and human exploration efforts on track. NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale put the best face on the increase, however, explaining that the request will provide for "steady progress" and noting that the 5-year funding plan increases at about 2.4% annually. NASA will plow more money--about $500 million--into Earth observation over the next 5 years in response to criticism that it has provided insufficient resources for this important research area. But the overall budget for science will remain "fairly fixed," she added. So a plan to focus on a Mars sample return by 2020 means that scientists must abandon other less ambitious Mars flights. And funding for astrophysics and heliospherics decreases in the president's plan.

Department of Defense
A $250 million increase in basic research spending for 2009, to $1.7 billion, is widely seen as a belated response to complaints that DOD was left out of ACI. Last summer, John Young, director for defense research and engineering, proposed an 11% boost in the agency's larger science and technology budget and a 20% boost to its basic research budget. Although the President's request doesn't go quite that far--the overall S&T budget request for 2009 is $11.2 billion, only 4.2% higher--DOD's science managers and academic lobbyists say the memo clearly had an impact. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was receptive, they say, in part because of his background as a former university president and an author of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which called for greater investments in basic defense research.

"There was a realization that we now have an entire table of potential threats, many of which we have never really invested any research dollars into," says William Rees, undersecretary for basic science. He says the increased funding, if approved by Congress, will help the agency tackle those threats by replenishing "a well of new ideas [that] is beginning to run dry."

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has also fared well, with a proposed 10% increase, to $3.3 billion. Another highlight is a 50% boost, to $69 million, in the 3-year-old National Defense Education program. It aims to increase the number of domestic students going into defense-related science and engineering by awarding undergraduate and graduate fellowships.

Homeland Security
The President has requested $869 million for the department's Science and Technology directorate, a $39 million increase. But that includes a proposal to shrink university-based research programs run by the directorate from $49 million to $44 million. At the same time, the Administration wants to boost funding for the agency's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office by $80 million and add $35 million toward efforts to develop and deploy detection systems to guard against bioterrorist attacks.

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