First words, then deeds. Frustrated that White House officials have ignored congressional language curtailing scientific collaborations with China, legislators have decided to get their attention through a 32% cut in the tiny budget of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Science lobbyists say that's a bad idea.
A 2012 spending bill expected to be approved later this week slashes OSTP's current $6.6 million budget to $4.5 million. The cuts won't mean layoffs or furloughs for the office's 90-person staff, many on loan from other agencies or outside institutions. But it "will have real consequences on OSTP's operations," says OSTP spokesperson Rick Weiss, forcing OSTP "to prioritize existing activities" in fields ranging from science education to sustainable energy.
The implicit reason for the budget cut is an ongoing battle between House of Representatives Republicans and the White House over the threat to U.S. interests posed by collaborations with China in high-tech sectors such as space, energy, computing, and advanced manufacturing. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the House spending panel that oversees NASA as well as OSTP, inserted language  into the final 2011 spending bill blocking both agencies from using money to pursue such activities.
After science adviser and OSTP Director John Holdren acknowledged  holding joint meetings with Chinese officials shortly after the ban went into effect this spring, Wolf took the next step and won House support this summer for a 55% cut in OSTP's budget. His Senate counterparts later approved a 9% reduction, and yesterday a conference committee of legislators from both bodies announced that they had split the difference.
The final version in the 2012 spending bill retains the prohibitory language, although it gives the White House an opportunity to engage in some collaborations if it can "certify" that they "pose no risk … of transferring technology, data, or information with national security or economic security implications to China or a Chinese-owned company." It also requires that OSTP give Congress 14 days' notice and a full description of the proposed joint activity.
In a letter sent last week to congressional appropriators, Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) outlined the negative impact of a shrunken OSTP. "We believe such a drastic reduction to OSTP's budget will dramatically inhibit the ability of the federal government to coordinate, prioritize and manage the federal research and development (R&D) effort," Leshner wrote. "This kind of reduction would also seriously limit the ability to take appropriate account of science and technology considerations in the formulation of diverse policies."