Members of a key congressional spending panel voiced strong, bipartisan support yesterday for increasing the federal investment in basic research. But given the tight spending limits facing Congress this year, scientists should not expect to take that support to the bank.
The hearing, titled “Driving Innovation through Federal Investment,”  was designed to showcase the enormous payoff to society from federal funding of academic research over the decades, from the Internet and stealth technology to MRI and better weather forecasting. But the next generation of new technologies is threatened by the inconsistent pattern of support for science over the past decade, according to the heads of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, who joined presidential science adviser John Holdren in testifying at the 140-minute hearing.
The event gave members of the Senate Appropriations Committee a chance to hurl softball questions about the causes of what a coalition of pro-science organizations has labeled an innovation deficit and what it would take to eliminate it. But despite an eagerness to describe their agencies’ plight, the five witnesses needed repeated prompting by legislators to make some of their key points.
“I only brought one prop,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said as he pointed to a model of an artificial hand, generated by a 3D printer, that held an object resembling a baseball. “Its mesh construction is an amazing technology.”
Before Moniz, a physicist, could say anything more about how the limb was created by scientists at the department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the chair of the committee, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), interrupted. “But what does it do? Can it win the World Series?” she asked. And it was Mikulski, not Moniz, who reminded her colleagues on the panel that the technology could benefit “our wounded warriors” or accident victims.
NSF’s new director, France Córdova, missed a similar opportunity to connect her agency’s activities to the public good when Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) inquired about how an NSF program in sustainable chemistry, part of an agency-wide initiative, was producing new, greener technologies. “I don’t know a lot about it,” confessed Córdova, an astrophysicist and former Purdue University president who was sworn in on 31 March. Coons then explained how the program, part of an agency-wide initiative called Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability, has demonstrated “how basic research can be scaled up by industry.”
It was no surprise that Democrats on the panel attacked sequestration, the wildly unpopular mechanism created by the 2011 budget deal that led to across-the-board cuts last year. (The current budget agreement in effect erases the sequester for 2014 and 2015 but retains a tight spending ceiling.) Responding to a question from reporters about funding prospects in 2015 for specific agencies, Mikulski talked about the harmful effects of sequestration on the overall scientific enterprise. “We don’t like to cherry-pick. We like to make sure the whole orchard grows. But we have to watch out for the pesticide of sequester,” Mikulski said.
Science lobbyists were also buoyed by comments from the panel’s top Republican, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). He said that the combination of arbitrary cuts and the year-to-year uncertainty about funding levels had created “the worst possible” scenario and should not continue.
“We are bound by a top number, so we need to set priorities,” Shelby noted in his closing statement. “But I think that what we spend on basic research is not enough. We are leaving a lot of good ideas and perhaps breakthroughs on the table. And we can’t afford that as a nation.… And if we don’t do it, somebody else in the world is going to do it. We’re not the only big boy on the block.”
Shelby also voiced support for how federal research officials are managing their agencies, a sentiment that is not shared by some of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives.  “I’m of the mind to give you a lot of leeway because of what you’ve done in the past, and because [I think] you’ll do a lot more in the future,” Shelby said.
The science community was delighted that Mikulski’s panel exercised its government-wide jurisdiction to assemble an unusually broad range of science agency chiefs. (Most committees also shy away from such a sprawling topic as the connection between basic research and innovation because they have a more limited purview.) Some 138 organizations asked if their leaders could testify, and while none was invited, all of them submitted written statements.
Despite her sympathy with their cause, Mikulski made the witnesses squirm by asking them to choose between two difficult budgetary scenarios. “Is it more money, or would you prefer more certainty?” she said. “And you don’t have to answer the question.”
Most of the witnesses chose her third option. That’s also what Congress has done to date. For scientists, the lack of clarity means that the 2015 budget could be a repeat of 2014—a few increases, some cuts, and continued uncertainty about the long-term prospects for research.