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Web Extra Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Science on a budget

For the first time in 13 years, Congress has cutthe budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), decreasing the federal agency's operating budget by 1.9 percent from 2004 levels. Funded at $5.47 billion, NSF received $105 million less than it did last year, and $232 million less than the fiscal year 2005 request, despite the president's recommendation for a 3 percent increase.

"If they're going to cut the deficit, where are they going to cut?" says Sam Rankin, chairperson for the Coalition for National Science Funding. "I don't think it's the government against science," he says. "I think we're just caught in the crunch."

Two major NSF areas are affected by the cuts: Research and Related Activities (R&RA), and Education and Human Resources (EHR). R&RA, which funds basic science research directorates and programs, lost 0.7 percent — approximately $30.8 million. EHR, which supports many science education and workforce development initiatives, including undergraduate and graduate education grants, and the Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) initiative, decreased 10.4 percent — $97.6 million. Although MSP lost approximately $60 million in funding through NSF, the Department of Education received a 16 percent increase to its MSP initiative. However, the function of the two initiatives are different in scope and raising the budget of one aspect, while lowering the other, does not fundamentally preserve the entire program (see Geotimes, June 2004.)

Yet even with large fiscal cuts, Rankin says that each directorate has flexibility on how and where to spend its funds. Thus, the geosciences within R&RA should be able to maintain its current level of activity, as will other directorates such as biology and engineering.

"There isn't a [person] in Congress who would say basic research isn't important," Rankin says, but NSF must compete with programs such as NASA, Veteran's Affairs, and the Housing and Urban Development program, which all fall under the same committee. Both the Senate and the House are charged with doling out monies to 13 separate committees, and a compromise must be made between the two as to how much money each committee will get. Community development and public assistance programs typically take precedence over funding science.

Although NSF's budget was cut on the whole, many programs still came out ahead, including programs in the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC), such as EarthScope — a large-scale research project to understand the North American continent. "Congress, apparently mindful of the 'queue' of approved-but-unfunded projects, added money to the MREFC account," says Curtis Suplee, Director of Legislative and Public Affairs for NSF. The MREFC program received a 12.1 percent increase, with EarthScope receiving a $3.5 million boost. Congress also appropriated $15 million to the same account to begin constructing a new scientific ocean drilling vessel. That amount is still significantly less than the requested amount, which was approximately $40 million, but will allow for the initial stages of research and development.

Despite cuts to basic scientific endeavors, Suplee says that "NSF is charged with ensuring that the nation stays at the frontier of science and engineering research and education, and we will continue to pursue that goal with whatever resources are available."

The budget results for other federal agencies and departments were mixed. The Department of Energy, overseeing projects including the nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, received an increase over last year's budget. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, received the first cuts to its budget in recent years, leaving them with $8.02 billion. The U.S. Geological Survey received $935.8 million — a $3.8-million cut to their budget, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was appropriated $3.94 billion, a modest increase from last year. By far, NASA comes out the biggest winner, receiving an $822-million increase to $16.2 billion to initiate the moon and Mars missions, and to return space shuttles to flight.

For more information on current budget appropriations in the geosciences, go to the American Geological Institute (which publishes Geotimes) Government Affairs Program Web site.

Laura Stafford

NSF budget summary
Department of Education budget summary
"Science Funding Left Behind" (Geotimes, June 2004)
AGI Government Affairs Program budget summary
"Dim Prospects for Geosciences '05" (Geotimes, March 2004)

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