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Comment

Science Funding out of Balance
The Honorable Sherwood Boehlert

Science and technology are the keystones of our economic prosperity and national security. Economists attribute much of the nation’s productivity in recent years to the fruits of research and development (R&D). That productivity improvement fueled the longest period of economic expansion in our nation’s history.

Advancements in science and technology have also been critical to the nation’s ability to triumph in the Cold War. Indeed, Cold War-era investments in science and technology, especially those made in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, laid much of the foundation for the broad, successful scientific and engineering enterprise the United States boasts today. New ideas, understandings and technologies spawned by research and development are likely to be just as essential to winning the war against terrorism.

Moreover, science and technology have the potential to cure numerous domestic and global social ills — disease, poverty, hunger, cultural isolation and environmental degradation, to name just a few.

But advances in science and technology do not come cheap or without focused effort; nor are they solely the responsibility of the private sector. Throughout our history, particularly during the years since World War II, the federal government has played a fundamental role in underwriting R&D, especially, but not exclusively, basic research at the nation’s universities. This investment, which has a long history of bipartisan support, has paid off with handsome benefits for all Americans.

While the percentage of national R&D sponsored by the federal government has declined in recent years, the federal role remains essential. Indeed, as competitive pressures have led many industrial enterprises to focus research on projects with shorter-term benefits, longer-term research depends more than ever on federal support.

None of these assertions is new or unfounded, but as Chairman of the House Science Committee, I believe I have a responsibility to consistently and forcefully convey this message to the rest of Congress and to the administration. This message is even more important now as a response to the administration’s fiscal year 2003 budget request.

Even a casual glance at the budget makes clear what the R&D priorities are: biomedical research and the fight against terrorism at home and abroad. These are reasonable, even self-evident, priorities and they deserve to be funded more generously than are other programs. That is what it means to be a budget priority.

But I am concerned that the proposed budget treats these items not just as priorities, but as panaceas. And that treatment, I fear, is a mistake. I have long supported and continue to support the doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the NIH alone cannot undergird our economic health or even improve human health. Yet the NIH budget is now larger than that of the rest of the civilian science agencies put together. The increase alone in the NIH budget is larger than the entire research budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Similarly, I have long been a supporter of Defense Department development programs, but those programs alone cannot create a stable and secure American society or even ensure our protection from enemy attacks over the long-term. Yet while the Pentagon is slated to receive a 12 percent increase, most of that increase is for development. Funding for basic and applied research in the Defense Department is flat, and numerous programs in other agencies that unarguably contribute to homeland security receive tepid increases.

For years, some have raised the difficult question of whether the R&D budget is out of balance. This year, we may finally find out the answer, and I fear it will be “yes.”

The focusing of the proposed R&D budget on two narrowly defined priority areas has left the spending for other agencies anemic. A case in point is NSF.

The fiscal year 2003 budget request for NSF is $5.04 billion, $239.91 million, or 5 percent, over the fiscal year 2002 appropriation. However, $76 million of the increase does not represent new spending, but rather existing funding associated with three programs the administration proposes to transfer to NSF. These programs are the Sea Grant program now at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, hydrology programs now at the U.S. Geological Survey, and environmental education programs now at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposed transfers are well intentioned, but largely wrongheaded. The transfers are unlikely to occur, and, in any event, none of the transferred money would be available to strengthen existing NSF programs or create new ones. After subtracting the transfers, NSF is left with an actual proposed increase of about 3.4 percent, about 1 percent above inflation. This is not a significant increase for an agency charged with ensuring the overall health of the nation’s university research enterprise — an agency that the Office of Management and Budget has held up as a model of good management.

Some have argued that NSF’s budget should be doubled. While this proposal has always struck me as arbitrary, its intention is right: we need to engage in a serious debate about the future of NSF. The House Science Committee will have this debate over the next few months as we write an NSF reauthorization bill.

Congress, led by the House Science Committee, will have to show its mettle and provide an infusion of cash for the rest of the research budget, even in these straitened times. The federal investment in science and technology is too vital, too necessary, for us to settle for anything less.


Rep. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) represents New York’s 23rd District and is Chairman of the House Science Committee. E-mail
Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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