Political Scene

Taking Aim at a Defense Budget
David Applegate and Margaret Baker

Almost a year ago, President Bush released his first budget to Congress. The new administration had a number of campaign promises to fulfill, particularly ones involving beefed-up spending for education, health research and national security. Thus, it was not surprising to find large, fiscal year 2002 budget increases for these three areas. Because the president was also determined to rein in the rate of growth in federal spending, he offset these increases with cuts in other discretionary accounts. For geoscience agencies and programs, the budget requested a decrease or flat funding that failed to keep pace with inflation.
At the time, officials in the affected agencies said that the next year’s budget would better reflect the administration’s support for science. Whether that was to have been the case is not particularly relevant in the wake of September 11. The fiscal year 2003 budget that President Bush rolled out last month is a war budget formulated during a recession that has turned budget surpluses back into deficits.

The budget’s focused increases for national security and homeland defense are certainly as they should be. Science is presented as part of those efforts, but only science narrowly defined. Much of the 17.3 percent boost for the National Institutes of Health (to a whopping $27.3 billion total) is directed toward addressing the bioterrorism threat. Defense research and development spending is up as well.

An emphasis on defense and homeland security should be good news for the geosciences given how much geoscientists are contributing to the cause; but the budget does not reflect much recognition of those contributions. Conspicuously lacking from the request for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is any funding for the Survey’s activities in support of homeland security and the war overseas. Despite the contributions that all four disciplines within the USGS are making, neither the emergency supplemental requests nor the fiscal year 2003 request provide any direct funding. Instead, for the second year in a row, the USGS faces substantial cuts in the president’s request, this time down to $867 million, just over a 5 percent reduction.

Hardest hit are the USGS water programs, even though the Survey’s monitoring capabilities could supply a key early-warning system for bioterrorist attacks. In the request, funding for the National Water Quality Assessment program would drop 9.2 percent, forcing the termination of activities in six of 42 watershed study units. The Toxic Substances Hydrology Program,  or Toxics, which supports long-term research on water resource contamination in both surface water and groundwater environments, would be eliminated and a portion of its funding transferred to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Energy security is an important component of overall national security, but the president’s request would drastically reduce support for natural gas and petroleum research funded by the Department of Energy: a 50 percent cut for natural gas research down to $23 million; and a 37 percent cut from petroleum research, down to $35 million.

The budget request also seeks to reward those agencies that have demonstrated good management practices. Back in December, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) lavished praise on NSF for efficiently distributing federal dollars to outside institutions rather than paying for government researchers and facilities. That praise translated into a requested 5 percent increase, bringing NSF’s budget to a total $5.1 billion.

But part of that increase would come from transferring three programs from other agencies — the USGS Toxics program, NOAA’s Sea Grant program and an Environmental Protection Agency environmental education program. All three of the transfers would go to the NSF Geosciences Directorate, giving the appearance of a healthy 13.4 percent increase to $691.1 million for the directorate and a 21.2 percent increase to $153.1 million for its Earth Science Division.

The transfers, however, are not likely to transpire. Congressional appropriators already are expressing skepticism over the quality of the fit between these programs and NSF’s mission. If Congress does not approve the transfers, the Geosciences Directorate faces a flat budget or even, in the case of the Ocean Sciences Division, a cut.

A bright spot in the NSF request is the funding of EarthScope as part of the foundation’s separate Major Research Equipment account. This account has historically funded large, multi-user facilities such as telescopes and atom smashers. In contrast, EarthScope is a set of four distributed projects that would deploy arrays of seismometers and GPS receivers; would instrument the San Andreas Fault (in conjunction with USGS); and, with NASA, would launch an interferometric side-aperture radar satellite. The collaborative Earthscope project would use the latest technology to provide a comprehensive understanding of the geologic processes operating within the North American continent.

Although Earthscope was in the president’s request two years ago, an intensive lobbying campaign by atmospheric scientists led congressional appropriators to fund the High-Performance Instrumental Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER) instead. HIAPER awaits a final year of funding in fiscal year 2003, but is again not in the request. With Congress all but certain to fund completion of this General Dynamics aircraft, getting the initial funding for EarthScope will be a challenge.

The geoscience community will need to make a concerted effort to communicate to both the administration and Congress how relevant and valuable our science is to the nation’s current priorities and needs.

Applegate and Baker are with the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program, and Applegate is also editor of Geotimes. E-mail

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