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Is More Always Better?

27 April 2012 3:39 pm

As the smoke clears from the opening congressional salvos in the 2013 budget wars, the Obama Administration finds itself with the unexpected—but not entirely unpleasant—job of deciding how to respond to legislators' preliminary plans to give some science programs more money than the White House had requested.

Increases weren't supposed to be an option this year. The spending limits set in last summer's budget agreement had forced the president to make "tough choices" in the 2013 budget he sent to Congress in February, according to presidential science adviser John Holdren. Speaking yesterday at the annual Forum on Science and Technology (S&T) Policy sponsored by AAAS (publisher of Science Insider), Holdren acknowledged that "we haven't done as well as we would have liked." Large and sustained growth at several research agencies must be deferred until sunnier economic times, Holdren said, reiterating a message he has given to numerous scientific audiences this year. Compounding the Administration's self-restraint was the expected squeeze on science by the Republican-led House of Representatives as part of a relentless campaign to trim overall federal spending and reduce the deficit.

That scenario may still come to pass. Although the 2013 fiscal year begins in October, nobody expects a final budget until after the November election. And every agency would feel the effect of massive, mandatory cuts on 1 January if no new budget agreement is reached. But when House and Senate spending panels voted recently to restore money for several research programs that the Administration had targeted for cuts, it raised a new issue for White House science officials: Is more money for research always a good thing?

"Yes, as a general matter, increases [in S&T budgets] are good," Holdren told ScienceInsider after his speech to the AAAS forum. "But, of course, under overall caps, whether particular increases are good depends on what they come out of. That's why we need to study the House proposals before offering an opinion."

Holdren had been asked specifically about recent votes by the House Appropriations Committee. Acting on two (of 12) spending bills under its jurisdiction, the panel agreed on Wednesday to increase the president's request for fusion research at the Department of Energy by a total of $76 million, including $48 million more for the domestic program and $28 million for the U.S. contribution to the ITER fusion reactor being built in France. Last week it bumped up planetary science at NASA, adding $150 million to the Administration's request for continued work on a Mars sample return mission and $115 million more than the Administration had sought for two programs supporting mid-sized planetary missions.

That's not the only tinkering that legislators are doing with the Administration's research priorities. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a plan that would shift $1.6 billion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to NASA for the space agency to build and manage four weather satellite programs. The same committee also gave the National Science Foundation (NSF) a $299 million boost over its current budget but attached a significant string to the money. NSF Director Subra Suresh should throttle back a planned 56% growth in a half-dozen new, cross-agency initiatives, it said, and instead pour its increase into the much larger bread-and-butter programs within each of the foundation's six research directorates.

Agency officials typically avoid commenting on pending spending bills, knowing that the numbers aren't final. And they are especially loath to upset the people who control their budgets. So Suresh's official response to the attack on his cherished OneNSF initiatives is predictably bland: "We appreciate the strong bipartisan support for the National Science Foundation and recognition of its importance to our national economy and global competitiveness. We thank the Chairmen and Ranking Members of both Senate and House CJS [commerce, justice, and science] subcommittees for their continued leadership and support of science and the Foundation."

However, the increases by the House panel in NASA's planetary program hit a nerve within the Administration. This month, NASA asked the scientific community to propose cheaper substitutes to two Mars exploration missions that were cancelled because of a lack of funding. "I wish we would have done better in space," Holdren told the AAAS audience yesterday. "But it's a case of fitting 20 pounds of programs into a 10-pound bag. ... There is just not enough money in the pot." By adding to that pot -- in particular, a $185 million boost in the Administration's request for NASA's science directorate—legislators are signaling their unhappiness with the White House's plans for space science.

Disagreements over spending priorities are nothing new, of course. But there's an added irony to this year's battles. Legislators routinely urge agency officials to avoid "peanut buttering" their budgets—spreading cuts or increases relatively evenly across many programs instead of making the harder choice of boosting spending for the most deserving programs and shrinking or shuttering ineffective programs. At the same time, spending panels invariably question any large spending increases or cuts proposed by the White House, especially when money is scarce.

"You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't," says one NSF official, defending Suresh's decision to ask for large increases for the OneNSF initiatives. Even with the $100 million haircut from the president's request, however, the initiatives would receive a $190 million boost, to $707 million.

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