Tough Times Ahead No Matter Who Wins

Most election years, science plays only a small role in presidential politics. This year, however, two science-related issues have sparked national controversy because they serve as surrogates for larger disagreements over ideology and belief. The two major candidates, furthermore, have proclaimed rather different general visions of the nation's scientific priorities.

But for many of the scientists now working in labs dependent on federal money--especially those in nondefense fields, and most especially those who haven't yet established themselves as successful competitors for funding--these disputes will make little practical difference. Hard times lie ahead regardless of who takes the prize on 2 November.

The year's most prominent science issue, federal support of embryonic stem cell research, is so controversial that the sons of Ronald Reagan gave dueling speeches at the opposing party conventions; Michael Reagan backs President George W. Bush's policies, including the ban on funding for research on new stem cell lines, while Ron supports Senator John Kerry's promise to lift restrictions.

The second science-related question on this year's political agenda, the Bush Administration's alleged politicization of research results, inspired 48 Nobel laureates to issue a statement that Kerry "will support strong investments in science and technology . . . [and] restore science to its appropriate place in government." No similar coalition of world-class researchers has yet publicly backed Bush, and his campaign dismisses the Nobelists' letter as "partisanship" because at least 19 of the signers have "been involved in [such] partisan political activities" as contributing to Democratic causes and signing anti-Iraq war petitions. Finally, although Bush and Kerry agree that the country needs increased research funding, they differ considerably on how it should be distributed.

But for all the stump-speech hyperbole, a single, remorseless reality must govern the next president's actions, no matter who he is. The huge budget deficit, the war in Iraq, and the war on terrorism will combine to squeeze federal scientific agencies not directly involved in defense, homeland security, or several earmarked projects. Competing for scarce funds with a myriad of other money-strapped domestic agencies, the civilian science agencies face the likelihood of budget cuts, some quite substantial.

Still, in the area of science, Bush is running on a record of growth and progress. During his time in office, research funding has risen significantly. Total federal support for R&D increased by 44%, to the record $132 billion proposed for FY 2005. The doubling of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget to $28 billion a year--originally a Clinton initiative--is complete. The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) budget is up 30% since 2001.

Yet Bush's scientific bounty has not been equally shared. The proportion of research expenditures going to defense and homeland security has increased steadily, a trend likely to continue in a second Bush Administration. Fifty-seven cents of each research dollar now goes to the Pentagon, up from about 50 cents under President Clinton, and the military's share will continue to climb with a $4 billion increase already proposed for next year. Homeland security would enjoy a smaller but still sizable boost of $1.2 billion.

Among domestic initiatives, Bush claims success with the terrorism-related Project Bioshield, budgeted at over $2 billion. Although much of that money goes to stockpiling vaccines and improving disease surveillance and information exchange, part of it pays for research into improved vaccines and other "countermeasures" against smallpox, anthrax, and botulinum toxin. Bush also supports $10 billion annually for the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative, which is moving toward its first stage of deployment. Other goals include increased funding for nuclear weapons research; increased research on nanotechnology; space station, moon, and Mars projects at NASA; work on hydrogen fuels; and support for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project.

Not trumpeted by campaign literature, however, are the implications of these policies for civilian labs, both university-based and government-run, that will depend on shrinking nondefense federal spending. With NIH, NSF, and other civilian agencies already losing ground to inflation and on notice that the coming years will bring significant budget cuts, competition for grant money is likely to increase, perhaps sharply. Prominent among those feeling the squeeze will doubtlessly be postdocs--many of whom are already poorly paid--less established PIs, and young scientists trying to make the transition to independence.

Kerry's campaign pronouncements and literature paint a different and somewhat rosier picture of the federal civilian research outlook, as befits a liberal Senator whose home-state constituents include thousands of scientists working at such federal-funding magnets as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Boston University. The Democratic challenger promises to raise the research budgets of NIH, NSF, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy. He has expressed support for doubling the NSF budget. But his proposal to finance these increases partly by selling off broadcast spectrum at auction leaves many observers unconvinced.

Of particular interest to postdocs are two specific Kerry proposals. International postdocs will cheer his support for "streamlining" the visa system to speed the entry of scientists from abroad. But more problematic for the postdoc community is his promise to double the number of NSF graduate fellowships, which may eventually increase the number of scientists competing for postdoc positions.

Kerry also proposes to support research toward a range of civilian goals. A "Manhattan Project" for energy independence would seek new energy sources, including hydrogen-based fuels, to reduce the nation's dependence on Middle Eastern oil. He would increase the federal investment in both biotechnology and nanotechnology research. He would boost funding for AIDS research at NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially the hunt for an AIDS vaccine. He would support ITER. And along with an array of goal-based projects, he would foster "curiosity-driven research" and reward outstanding scientific and technological achievement by establishing major prizes.

Not included in Kerry's proposals, however, is any explicit plan to pay for these bigger research budgets. His opposition to deployment of Star Wars and to the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons could free up money if he succeeded in ending those programs. But a nearly 20-year-old, multibillion dollar project like Star Wars has nurtured so many supporters in Congress and across the country that it could prove very hard to slow down. Regardless of what either presidential candidate promises, it is Congress that makes the final decisions about how the taxpayers' dollars are spent and there's no telling now exactly how the new Congress will be constituted. The candidates' positions, of course, include fine opportunities for scientists in a number of favored fields, and many able and ambitious researchers will doubtlessly seek to work on those projects. But for the many others who cannot or do not wish to do so, the only sure thing in this election year is that, even if politicians' promises are plentiful, federal research dollars will be increasingly scarce.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers