Political Scene
Making the Investment

by Margaret A. Baker

ďLast year, government spending shot up 8 percent. Thatís far more than our economy grew, and far more than the rate of inflation. If you continue on that road, you will spend the surplus and have to dip into Social Security to pay other bills. Unrestrained government spending is a dangerous road to deficits, so we must take a different path.Ē

President George W. Bush addressing a joint session of Congress, Feb. 27, 2001

This month the Bush administration releases its first detailed budget. The spending levels requested for most federal agencies will reflect the presidentís belief that non-defense discretionary spending (the funds appropriated annually) has grown at an unsustainable rate in the last few years. Does this general assessment hold true for science? If we are to craft successful arguments for expanding federal investment in research and development (R&D), it will be useful to have a better sense of how science has fared in recent years.

According to figures compiled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science R&D Budget and Policy Program, federal investment in combined defense and nondefense R&D increased from $71 billion in fiscal year 1994 to $91 billion in fiscal year 2001, a 28-percent increase over those eight years. That change translates into an average annual increase of 3.7 percent. But while 28 percent sounds impressive, the increase has not been evenly distributed. In that same period, the budget for the National Institutes of Health increased 87.4 percent while that for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went up only 13.7 percent.

From fiscal year 1997 to fiscal year 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has averaged an annual increase of 1.2 percent, well below inflation. The survey received an apparent boost in fiscal year 1996 when it absorbed the functions of the abolished National Biological Service and U.S. Bureau of Mines. But the year before, USGS received a 0.1-percent increase in its R&D activities. And fiscal year 1999 was marked by a 9.1-percent decrease. Other geoscience-related programs show a similarly uneven history, with the exception of the National Science Foundationís Geosciences Directorate, which has seen a gradual but steady increase.

Far from being unsustainably high, these spending patterns reflect a disturbing under-investment in the nationís future prosperity. The science community has a responsibility to communicate that R&D is an inexpensive insurance policy for this countryís economic and military security. Fundamental research may not provide a return on investment for years or even decades, but the last 50 years have taught us that as much as half of the nationís growth and prosperity can be attributed to technological innovation grounded in the advances of science. R&D investments have long-term payoffs.

Investments that take decades to provide a return are not an easy sell within a two- or four-year political cycle. But the case must be made, and we in the science community must be the ones to make it.

The budget cycle now moves from the executive branch to Congress. Discussion on the budget will continue for several months before Congress finalizes funding levels.  Contact your elected officials and educate them about the importance of investing in science.  Make communicating with Congress a standard practice instead of a one-shot deal.  Now is the perfect time to become an active citizen-geoscientist.

Baker is the program associate for government affairs at the American Geological Institute. E-mail: mab@agiweb.org

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