The Science Deficit

By Beth Dickey

March 15, 2005

Civilian research is taking a back seat to defense and security needs.

Research and development funding is declining or flat in key disciplines not associated with the nation's defense and the war against terrorism, raising fears that the United States will fall behind in the international competition to discover, invent and create the technologies of the future.

At issue is research in physical and biological sciences that can lead to major scientific and technological breakthroughs and better diagnosis and treatment of human disease. The plight of these disciplines is, to an extent, masked by overall increases in federal R&D funding driven by defense and homeland security research programs.

The national security programs pushed federal R&D spending to a record high of $131.6 billion in fiscal 2005, 4.7 percent more than the government spent in 2004. President Bush's new budget proposes to spend $132.3 billion in fiscal 2006. Space, energy and nondefense homeland security R&D programs would see substantial increases. But in physics, computers, mathematics, ecology, economics and even health programs that have seen sustained growth in recent years, the picture is not as bright. They are suffering as the government attempts to reduce its budget deficits. The proposed total R&D portfolio for 2006 is 0.6 percent, or $733 million, above this year's funding level. Within the portfolio, however, federal support for basic and applied research would fall by the same percentage, to $54.8 billion.

That's of concern to science advocates such as Samuel Rankin, associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. He leads the Washington-based Coalition for National Science Funding, an alliance of professional societies, universities and corporations advocating support for the National Science Foundation. Limiting R&D adds up to a loss in U.S. global competitiveness in Rankin's book. "I'm concerned that we're losing our status in a number of areas, because we're not putting enough money into basic research," he says.

Rankin's comments today echo those delivered four years ago by the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The Hart-Rudman Commission is best known for its prescient warning about the threat of a terrorist attack on these shores and for its recommendation to create a homeland security agency, but the second of five key recommendations called for "recapitalizing America's strengths in science and education." The report called for a doubling of the federal R&D budget by 2010 and a new education law to fund production of science and engineering professionals and science and math teachers.

Federally funded R&D has produced countless breakthroughs over the years-among them the Internet, bar codes, gene mapping and even the Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Edible vaccines, fusion energy and commercial space travel are some of the emerging R&D products that promise to become commonplace.

The most prominent government supporters of basic research-science done merely for the sake of knowledge-are the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are among those most active in applied sciences-research employing basic knowledge to satisfy a need. The heaviest development components are found at NASA and the Defense Department, which use science and technology to build hardware such as spaceships, high-performance aircraft and weapons. Federal R&D funds are at work in countless areas, from astronomy to zoology. The government also often pays to build the laboratories where R&D happens, whether inside government, on college and university campuses, or in industry.

Numbers Deceive

The federal R&D investment increased 44 percent during President Bush's first term, an average of 10 percent each year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. OMB notes that the 13.5 percent of discretionary outlays committed to R&D in 2005 is the highest since the height of the Apollo moon program in 1968, and that the 5.7 percent committed to nondefense R&D is the third highest in 25 years.

Almost 81 percent of the $6.2 billion increase in total R&D funding in 2005 is ticketed for defense projects and mostly to develop new weapons. Defense-related R&D will hit an all-time high of $74.9 billion this year with the Defense, Homeland Security and Energy departments sharing the bulk of a $4.8 billion, or 6.8 percent, increase. Nondefense R&D spending will rise by $1.2 billion, or 2.2 percent, to $56.7 billion in 2005, beating the 1 percent overall increase for domestic programs but falling short of increases in previous years. In 2006, nondefense R&D spending would increase 0.7 percent to $57.1 billion.

The 2005 and 2006 budgets do little to reverse a 10-year trend of flat funding for most nondefense agencies, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. An exception is NIH, whose budget doubled between 1998 and 2003. AAAS says engineering and the physical and environmental sciences in particular have suffered from shrinking federal support. And the professional association late last year predicted that investment in R&D would continue to lag, losing ground to inflation, except in the priority areas of defense, homeland security and space.

AAAS based its prediction on five-year projections in the federal budget. It says the president's 2006 request assumes that domestic spending not related to homeland security will be frozen at the 2004 level through 2010. Proposals to trim discretionary spending over the next five years could leave the federal R&D portfolio wanting, because federal R&D investments tend to track discretionary spending, AAAS says.

Falling Behind

Declining funding of basic and applied research is worrisome not only to the scientists and educators who benefit directly, but also to experts who have studied U.S. international security concerns. On university campuses in the United States, nearly 60 percent of all R&D is funded by the government. As Kei Koizumi, R&D budget and policy director at AAAS, says, "It's pretty clear that the amount of money the federal government puts in is strongly connected to the number of graduates that come out of the universities in those disciplines." That's one reason universities are not producing more scientists. Another, the Hart-Rudman Commission concluded, is that American students often find salaries more lucrative in areas that do not require as much preparation and effort as careers in science and mathematics.

The commission remarked with favor on the large increases in privately funded R&D in recent years, but noted that those investments tend to be oriented toward development rather than research. The commission emphasized the need for more public spending. "If the United States does not invest significantly more in public research and development, it will be eclipsed by others," the commission report asserted. "Recent failures in this regard may return to haunt us. The decision not to invest in a large nuclear accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider, already means that the most significant breakthroughs in theoretical physics at least over the next decade will occur in Europe and not the United States. The reduction of U.S. research and development in basic electronics engineering has ensured that the next generation of chip processors and manufacturing technology will come from an international consortium (U.S.-German-Dutch) rather than from the United States alone."

Even Defense Department spending on basic research is shrinking. The National Research Council of the National Academies expressed concern in an assessment commissioned by Congress and released in January. According to the assessment, the Defense Department is increasing its science and technology budget request, but its investment in basic research remains stagnant and too focused on near-term demands. "[Defense] needs to realign the balance of its basic research effort more in favor of unfettered exploration," the council wrote. According to AAAS, the president's budget request for 2006 proposes to cut the Defense Science and Technology program by 21 percent, and would subject the rest of defense R&D to fiscal restraints for the first time in a decade.

What's Next

In the meantime, tight research budgets in the government's domestic agencies are producing disappointed grant applicants, a focusing of objectives among the funding agencies, and some evidence of concern in the halls of Congress.

Robert Mitchell was turned down by the Agriculture Department's National Research Initiative last year in a bid for $500,000 to study how proactive burning and fertilizer treatments affect tree growth in the longleaf pine forests of southwest Georgia. Mitchell is a forest regeneration specialist with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Georgia, Auburn University, the University of Florida and Virginia Tech. He had a winning streak of eight previous grants.

But NRI funded only 13 of 250 applications in 2004, and Mitchell's didn't end up among the winners. Research and education institutions that depend on federal money have "really been hammered" because those resources are being stretched so thin, says Mitchell's boss, Lindsay Boring, director of the Jones Ecological Center. "I don't know of any university that's not under a lot of financial stress right now relative to their continuity of funding," he says.

Federal research program directors also are unhappy with the trend. But, "We do the best we can with what we have, which is the way government is supposed to work," says Anna Palmisano, deputy administrator of competitive programs at USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. She heads the National Research Initiative. Slipping grant application success rates concern Palmisano, too, but, she says, "In order to get them up to 20 percent, where we'd like them to be, we need to triple or quadruple our budget. That's just not going to happen." Instead, NRI will try to articulate its goals more clearly in hopes of reducing the number of proposal submissions.

"We are investing heavily in the medical sciences, but in the environmental and natural resources sciences, we invest less," Boring says. Koizumi of AAAS agrees there is a funding imbalance, but sees trouble on both sides of the scale: "Success rates are going down even in places like NIH."

Former Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., who led the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, expects the science of national security to continue to fare well while Congress whittles away at non-security research to control spending. Porter orchestrated the doubling of NIH's budget and is chairman-elect of Research! America, an Alexandria, Va., promoter of public and private health research funding. "In [the 2004] election, many ran on the basis of deficits that are out of control and being sent to Washington to do something about that," he told a Dec. 1 technology policy forum sponsored by AAAS. "But we have to make certain that science doesn't pay any more than its fair share in addressing that national problem."

How much investment is necessary? On Capitol Hill, a new bipartisan caucus is seeking an answer. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., co-founded the Congressional Research and Development Caucus with Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in 2004 to raise awareness about the importance of R&D to the nation's economy, security, environment and energy independence. The group met 10 times in 2004, attracting standing-room-only audiences to each session. Biggert shares advocates' concerns about R&D budget imbalances and the possible economic consequences. What the nation should spend, she says, is "whatever it takes to have employment and to keep us moving ahead of other countries."

By Beth Dickey

March 15, 2005