Down to a Science

From nanotech to biotech, R&D funding reaches beyond agency missions.

Quick: Name a federal agency whose research could boost milk production, wean consumers off gasoline and perhaps even bring peace to the Middle East.

If you guessed the Agriculture Department, you'd be right. The department's research into new technologies can drive those results and more. Diverse as it might seem, the breadth of Agriculture's R&D program should not be too surprising. Across the board, agencies pursue research projects that have implications beyond their scope.

Some R&D programs target specific agency missions, while others tackle basic science, the big questions whose answers might not have immediate practical implications. By and large, both types of programs remain strong, even in the face of budget cuts.

In 2010, the total nondefense R&D budget was $64 billion. While the April continuing resolution trimmed $38.5 billion from the federal budget, agencies with the most active research programs largely were spared, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2011, the National Institutes of Health's overall budget will take a 0.8 percent cut. The National Science Foundation will lose 1 percent of its funding, and the Energy Department's Office of Science will be trimmed 0.4 percent, according to AAAS.

Politics do play a role in keeping research-intensive agencies strong. "Basically, both the left and the right like science," says Jesse Ausubel, a Rockefeller University professor who served on the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government from 1988 to 1993.

"There may be some difference in emphasis-some may like environmental research, others may like aerospace research-but there isn't one party that is for research and another that is against it. Basically, everyone is for it," Ausubel says.

Practical Projects

The bulk of research funding goes to the Defense Department. In 2010, military R&D programs received $84 billion, money it spent on weapons development, radiation drugs, malaria vaccines, magnetic rail guns and weather data systems. At civilian agencies, research and development casts an even wider net. Take Agriculture for example. Mapping the cattle genome to increase milk production: Makes sense. Mideast peace? Less obvious.

The tie-in stems from research into the plant disease Ug99, which destroys wheat crops. "Wheat is a staple in the diets in the Middle East," says Cathie Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics. "Through the research, we have been able to develop a strain of wheat that is resistant to Ug99." By shipping hundreds of tons of the stuff to Afghanistan, Woteki anticipates more food will mean less unrest in the region. "Over the long term we hope this will have the payoff of providing better stability in that country," she says.

Woteki's division will receive $2.9 billion in 2011. That money will support research into crop protection, environmental stewardship and food production. Some $220 million will go to biotechnology projects.

As with many agencies, the phrase "mission driven" underlies Woteki's efforts. "This is research for people," she says. "Most people when they think about USDA they think it is all going for farmers. But this is research that affects every consumer. You see it in low food prices: We spend less than 10 percent of our income on food, which is the lowest in the world."

At the Environmental Protection Agency, some scientists have set their sights on smaller targets, literally. They are trying to determine whether nanotechnology-the development of materials on the atomic and molecular scale-eventually could poison consumers. Typically nanotech is used to make products smaller, stronger, more efficient or less expensive to produce. There's nanotech in diesel fuel, some manufacturers weave it into textiles, other applications can screen for bacteria in food, while some scientists are using nanotech to develop more efficient household cleaning products.

With its exceptional ability to transport and store energy, nanotechnology will make a coming generation of car batteries remarkably efficient, but Jeff Morris wants to know whether they will be safe. As EPA's national program director for nanotechnology, Morris is working with industry groups and trade associations to understand what the tiny widgets will do when they hit the landfill.

Morris and his team conduct their investigations mostly using computers, partly because laboratory and field research costs more. The government spends more than $100 million a year on the environmental health and safety implications of nanotechnology, of which EPA gets $20 million. His work on batteries gets about $500,000.

Still, federal research funds are limited, which makes industry partnerships especially important. "The aim of our research really is to develop guidance that the people who make the stuff can then use," Morris says. "Our job is to develop models that they can use when they design these products and then take them into the factory."

Into the Abstract

Practical science at Agriculture and EPA aims to fulfill functional goals, as does military R&D, but that is only part of the equation. Much of federal research is basic science, whose relevance isn't always understood or well-accepted among the broad population. Science in general may be apolitical, but the notion of basic science and its significance can be hard to convey.

In a 2008 policy speech, Sarah Palin lambasted government-funded fruit fly research as a frivolous earmark. That research has led to discoveries that could advance treatments for Alzheimer's disease and autism, but some question the value of pure science.

Brad Keister would know. He is program director for nuclear physics in NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. In addition to overseeing the program he also pursues his own research, exploring connections between relativity and quantum mechanics in systems with a small number of particles. Some might say: So what? It's a question Keister has heard before, and his answer goes to the heart of why pure science matters.

"This is part of the world we live in, it is basic stuff, and we would like to know how it behaves," Keister says. "These are the kinds of questions that as curious people we want to know." Sometimes basic research also can have unexpected payoffs. The researcher at Bell Labs who developed lasers in the 1950s surely never dreamed we'd be pointing them at our eyes to correct vision. Whether research is pure or applied, driven by mission or mere curiosity, federal executives stand to gain from the R&D programs within their agencies.

"Part of what you are buying with your R&D budget is access to a clever group of people," Rockefeller University's Ausubel says. "You are getting a kind of brain trust, people you can consult with who have specialized knowledge. So if an oil spill or an earthquake occurs, you can be speaking to somebody who actually has useful, specialized knowledge with just one or two phone calls."

Adam Stone, a freelance journalist based in Annapolis, Md., writes about federal management issues, technology and a broad range of business topics.

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