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OMB puts the brakes on effort to double science budget

The Office of Management and Budget is putting the brakes on an ambitious proposal in Congress to double the $5 billion budget for the National Science Foundation over the next three to five years. OMB's opposition has disappointed the measure's advocates, who include university presidents, and is prompting them to change their strategy with Congress.

"Taking an arbitrary number of just doubling, it is not how we advocate funding," Amy Call, an OMB spokeswoman, told National Journal. "We look for programs that can show performance and results."

"Doubling really is an arbitrary thing," said John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who opposes the House and Senate bills that would double funding. "You can't just say, 'I need another billion dollars, and don't ask me what is the usefulness of what I discover, just give me the money.'"

Said one of the bill's disappointed advocates: "The Republicans do not double anything in government unless it is a tax cut. It is really a cultural issue ... `government' and `doubling' out of the mouths of Republicans will not come."

On Oct. 23, Marburger and OMB Director Mitchell Daniels met with eight university chancellors, all of whom belong to the Association of American Universities, which represents top research universities. The meet-and-greet was entirely positive, said Ralph Cicerone, chancellor of the University of California (Irvine), although Daniels "told us that it is not going to be a good budget year for everybody."

The doubling plan is being promoted in Congress by lobbyists for universities, scientists' groups, and some high-tech companies. In June, the House voted overwhelmingly to authorize an NSF budget increase of 50 percent over three years. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted in September to double the agency's budget, but over five years. That bill was headed for approval on the Senate floor until the Bush administration expressed its opposition.

The administration has not, however, announced its opposition to the bill through the usual mechanism, a Statement of Administration Policy. Without the SAP, the administration's position is not entirely clear, said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Wyden chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space and supports the bill.

"It is unclear why anyone would not support a doubling for NSF when so much of the nation's security and economic future depends on scientific development," Guthrie said.

Wyden's home state includes several high-tech companies, such as Intel, that support the bill. The administration's opposition to the doubling bill is made clear in a Sept. 17 letter from the NSF to Wyden, Marburger said.

Other advocates share Wyden's confidence in the bill's merits.

"We don't think [doubling] is arbitrary at all.... The [scientists'] peer-review process works very well, and they know where they need to be," said Robert Boege, executive director of the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America.

Advocates also say that the doubling bill is needed because spending on life-sciences research has far outpaced research in other areas, such as electronics, physics, and engineering. Such hard-science spending, meanwhile, has declined as a share of gross domestic product, and as a share of federal research spending, partly because of a buildup in federal health care research. The NSF doubling plan can help balance spending on these two sectors, advocates say, especially if the government also doubles spending at the Energy Department's research centers and at NASA, which fund much hard-science research.

According to the latest figures available on the NSF's Web site, university research spending on physical sciences, math, computer sciences, and engineering has grown from $2.24 billion in 1973 to $7.6 billion in 1999. University spending on life sciences has grown from $3.9 billion in 1973 to $12.8 billion in 1999. Further increases in life-science spending are expected, because Congress has doubled the National Institutes of Health's budget over the past five years to more than $27 billion, partly at the behest of university and science lobbies. Four of every five NIH dollars are awarded to universities and other non-governmental research centers. In his fiscal 2003 budget request, President Bush sought a 16 percent boost in the NIH's budget; he also asked that the NSF's budget be increased by 5 percent, which would bring its funding up to $5 billion.

Marburger agreed that it is important to balance spending. But, he said, simply doubling the NSF budget is not the best way to restore balance between life sciences and hard sciences. That goal, he said, would be better served by a careful accounting of the government's many agencies that fund research into engineering, physics, and other hard sciences.

Overall, the science community is improving its lobbying skills but still needs to directly address politicians' concerns regarding national security and economic growth, Marburger said.

Science advocates remain generally optimistic.

"In a very nonpartisan way, members of the science community have to make their case," Boege said. "They have to keep repeating the simple things and ask politicians to see reality out there, and they'll come to see reason."