Research Advocates Sink Tap on Budgets

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

U.S. science lobbyists are celebrating after the House of Representatives yesterday rejected a plan to shift $650 million in federal science spending into a program that fosters research by small businesses.

The House action involved the formula used to fund the $2-billion-a-year Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Begun in 1982 to help commercialize basic research discoveries, the program receives 2.5% of the budgets of 11 science agencies. Advocates argue that small firms drive innovation but that most have limited access to federal research dollars. A bill (H.R. 5819) to reauthorize the programs would have upped the tax to 3.0% and doubled a smaller, companion program that targets university entrepreneurs. Those changes would take $185 million out of the $30 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, for example.

That larger tax was endorsed by two House committees--on science and small business--as part of a slew of proposed changes to the program, triggering a vigorous lobbying campaign by several scientific organizations. Groups including the Association of American Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges noted that many science agencies are already suffering from stagnant budgets. They also questioned the quality of SBIR grants compared with those funded by the rest of an agency's portfolio. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) took up the cause by offering an amendment to drop the increase, asserting that "this is the wrong time to do it." But it was defeated on a party-line vote. The Bush Administration made similar arguments.

Sticking to his guns, Ehlers won permission to present his amendment again on the House floor, emphasizing that a better way to boost the SBIR program would be to hike overall spending on federal research. There he was joined by a last-minute plea from a Democratic heavyweight, Representative David Obey of Wisconsin, the chair of the House spending panel. Obey pointed out that growing SBIR "does no harm for a large agency whose budget has been rising, such as the Department of Defense, but it can do immeasurable harm to the crown jewel of our research agencies in this country, the National Institutes of Health."

Small-business proponents conceded defeat shortly before Ehlers's amendment was adopted without objection. "I appreciate the gentleman's tireless leadership with respect to federal funding for research, ... and I am going to accept the amendment," said Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), chair of the Committee on Small Business. The bill, which retained a section that will raise the maximum size of individual SBIR grants, passed by a vote of 363 to 48. In the Senate, a similar bill that would boost the tax to 5% is temporarily stalled.

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