Political Scene

Science Fares Poorly in Campaign Budget
David Applegate
[Click here for a chart showing how much money  federal science-funding agencies might  receive in fiscal year 2002, compared to fiscal year 2001.]

Federal science programs fared well in the fiscal year 2001 budget process that wrapped up last November. President Clinton asked for big increases, and the Republican Congress met or exceeded the president’s request in many cases. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NOAA received double-digit increases, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shook off years of budgetary stagnation to post an 8-percent gain. Politicians in both parties repeated the science community’s mantra that technology underpinned by science was a driving force of the nation’s economic boom and that a balanced investment in both the biomedical and physical sciences was the key to future advances. Bipartisan coalitions of senators called for doubling scientific research funding at NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD) and across the board for all science programs.

The Bush administration’s fiscal 2002 budget request brought many of those agencies back down to Earth. Research and development, or R&D, at NIH and DOD fared well, but the president’s requests for civilian, non-biomedical R&D programs were flat or declining. Is science a target? Not particularly. But the cuts to federal science programs are more than collateral damage.
The administration unveiled its proposed fiscal 2002 budget in early April. Five dominant factors set funding levels:

Paying for promises

This budget is a campaign budget, pure and simple. The president had campaigned not only for a $1.6 trillion tax cut, but also for increased spending on defense, education and biomedical research. Making these increases within the 4-percent growth cap meant other federal programs had to absorb $1 billion in cuts. Since the president does not control the annual spending for entitlement programs like Medicare or the interest on the national debt, those cuts had to come out of non-defense discretionary spending set through the annual appropriations process. And that is right where science programs get their money.

During the campaign, then-Gov. Bush pledged to double funding for the National Institutes of Health. He made no such pledge for other science programs. Indeed, readers of this column may be shocked (shocked!) to discover that non-biomedical science was not a major campaign issue for either party. In this light, agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA did well to receive slight increases at or below the rate of inflation. But the flat funding meant that new projects, such as the NSF Earthscope initiative, did not make it into the request (see Geotimes, March 2000).

In the case of the Interior Department, Bush’s campaign pledges were to fund the maintenance backlog for national parks, improve Native American schools, and redirect federal oil and gas royalties to state conservation programs. Because the department received a 3.4-percent decrease, non-priority programs had to make up the difference, none more than the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Although OMB initially sought a 22-percent cut, intervention by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and a strong response from USGS supporters brought the cut down to 9 percent. The final request essentially eliminated all the gains made in fiscal 2001, pushing the survey back two years.

The campaign driver would not matter so much were it not for the 4-percent spending cap. In an earlier column (Geotimes, April 2001), Margaret Baker examined the recent funding history of geoscience-related programs, showing that the president could provide significant investment in geoscience agencies before even coming close to his proposed limit.

Another driver is nothing new: the annual tug-of-war between the branches of government over who determines funding levels, combined with the repudiation of a previous administration’s policies. Most of the R&D decreases for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture budgets remove congressional earmarks. The president’s budget calls for eliminating the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (part of the Department of Commerce), a major component of the Clinton Administration’s technology policy. Another example is eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Project Impact program, which was closely associated with Clinton’s FEMA director, James Lee Witt.

Changing philosophy

If the budget priorities necessitated the overall cut, specific cuts reflect a narrower view of the USGS mission. According to Interior budget documents, the president’s request for the survey “proposes to focus resources on high priority programs, including meeting the science needs of the Department and land management programs, and to reduce funding for programs that primarily benefit external customers.”

Providing scientific support for land management is certainly a key component of the USGS mission, but that focus overlooks a broader national mission that extends well beyond the boundaries of our public lands. The survey’s role in monitoring and assessing natural hazards, resources and environmental conditions extends across the entire country, to all the places where people (voters!) live and work.

Water-quality programs were particularly hard hit. The National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program would be reduced by a third, and the Toxic Substances Hydrology program would be defunded entirely. The data collected by these programs are used heavily by EPA and its state counterparts, leading the administration to suggest that those users should also pay for these programs. While this motivation is understandable, it would quickly lead to a patchwork approach to data collection, a problem that has always plagued the streamgaging program. Moreover, it would turn the USGS into an EPA contractor, thus compromising the survey’s independence. This approach could also drive the USGS into greater competition with the private sector, where hackles are already raised.

In the case of energy supply research at DOE, oil and natural gas programs would see a reduction of over 50 percent as fossil energy research moves toward clean coal technology and away from industry partnerships. An article by Scott Tinker and Eugene Kim in this issue of Geotimes explains why oil and gas research is not corporate welfare but is filling a much-needed role in ensuring our future energy supplies.

Two fronts

Given that cuts to science programs are primarily an artifact of larger budgetary constraints, how do we respond? In the coming months, we need a concerted effort by geoscientists to explain to Congress why geoscience programs deserve support. The administration is not likely to resist if Congress restores funding for the USGS and provides a sizeable increase for NSF. We just need to convince them to do it.

At the same time, it is not too early to start looking toward the fiscal 2003 budget request. This next request will be the first prepared by a fully staffed Bush administration. As new presidential appointees come on board, it is imperative that they hear from the geoscience community on the importance of federal investment in the geosciences and on the national role that geoscience agencies such as the USGS play.

For more about the president's fiscal year 2002 budget request, visit the link on the American Geological Institute's Government Affiars page.

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes.
E-mail: applegate@agiweb.org

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