Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  February 1999 

Are the Geosciences Keeping Up?

by David Applegate

This past year, overall federal support for civilian science increased 6 percent. With the president's FY 2000 budget due out in less than a week, the question for our profession is: Will the news continue to be good for science? More specifically, will the news be good for the geosciences?

Taking the past five years as a guide, key geoscience-related agencies and programs have not kept pace with overall science budget increases. Nowhere is this inequity felt more than in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Why is that? The ability of science to garner funding depends almost entirely on the ability of agencies and their supporters to provide Congress and the White House with a compelling rationale for their activities. It would appear that the traditional arguments invoked for funding science have not been as convincing for the geosciences as they have for other disciplines, most notably biomedical research.

Political Rationales
In the decade since the end of the Cold War, science funding for national defense has declined. The other two traditional rationales - human health and the economy - have moved into the lead, with health well out ahead. As the accompanying graph (available from AAAS web site in PDF form) illustrates, the research and development (R&D) budget for the National Institutes of Health has increased nearly 30 percent in constant dollars over the past five years. Meanwhile, R&D spending by the Department of Defense (DOD) dropped more than 15 percent. Among the other civilian science agencies, only the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted gains.

The relative success of NSF - up 12 percent over the past five years - reflects the effectiveness of the economic argument, the notion that research leads (sometimes quite serendipitously) to new technologies that in turn stimulate the nation's economic growth. That argument has been the centerpiece of efforts by a broad coalition of scientific and engineering societies, AGI included, which argue that a significantpercentage of U.S. economic growth since the Second World War flows from advances in science and technology. It is worth noting that the economic rationale has benefited NSF's fundamental research rather than the more applied research at the Department of Energy (DOE) or the Department of Commerce. This situation principally reflects the general support in Congress for a federal role in "basic" research and private-sector responsibility for more applied research. Congress' attitude has effectively blocked the administration's efforts to develop a more activist technology policy.

Rationalizing Geoscience Funding
Although cases have been made as to how the geosciences benefit economic growth and human health, neither case has been particularly effective. The economic rationale works best if the scientific community's arguments are echoed by the private sector. The biotechnology and computer industries have been particularly vocal in this regard. In contrast, the energy and mineral industries have been rapidly reducing their own research efforts, hardly a ringing endorsement. Moreover, policy-makers do not view them as future growth industries, and cheap oil has lowered interest in energy and resource issues to an all-time low.

The inability of the geosciences to capitalize on the human health rationale reflects a broader problem: the failure to capitalize on the overwhelming public concern for the environment and translate it into the raison d'etre for better scientific understanding of planet Earth and its processes. Although human health and environmental health are closely linked, the rationale for the former has not produced similar growth in funding for the latter.

There have been a number of calls, most notably the recent House science policy study, to more publicly emphasize these links between science and societal good, particularly with respect to the environment. Such an approach should be a winner. Polls repeatedly show that issues such as clean water, toxic-waste cleanup, and air quality enjoy tremendous popular support. Moreover, all sides in these issues are firm in their commitment to a sound scientific basis for environmental decision-making. But although objectivity is stressed, only the R&D budget of the regulatory EPA has gone up. In contrast, funding for the principal nonregulatory scientific agencies engaged in environmental research has dropped, with the Department of the Interior taking the greatest budgetary beating.

In constant dollars, Interior has not come close to rebounding from the elimination of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the downsizing that accompanied integration of the National Biological Service (NBS) into the USGS as the new Biological Resources Division, and the slow bleeding of the Survey itself that led to a significant reduction in force within its Geologic Division. Recent budget increases for the USGS have been almost entirely directed at bringing the Biological Resources Division up to its earlier NBS funding levels, a goal finally achieved this past year.

Taking Arms Against a Sea of Troubles
Where does the problem lie? Congress? The White House? The agencies? Us? All of the above. The geoscience community must meet the challenge to generate support for USGS and other earth-science-related programs. A concerted effort is needed to remind the White House Office of Management and Budget that the president's often-voiced commitment to science and to the environment is not reflected in the budget of its premier nonregulatory environmental science agency. In Congress, appropriators who assert their personal support for the USGS complain of the lack of constituent interest. But unless Congress hears from geoscientists and other USGS stakeholders back in their districts, funding for the agency will continue to lag behind. The individual stories from 100,000 geoscientists told to Congress, the White House, and agency leadership would go a long way to convince them that the geosciences can provide a public good that this nation cannot afford to lose.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs

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