Caught in the Squeeze

Many U.S. science agencies would have to make do with less under the president's 2006 budget request, which aims to cut the deficit, boost military and antiterrorism spending, and make tax cuts permanent President George W. Bush has proposed a flat budget for U.S. science next year. And the spinning has begun in earnest.

John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, calls it "a pretty good year" for research, given the Administration's priorities of fighting terrorism, defending the homeland, and reducing the federal deficit. He says that the proposed 1% decline in the $61 billion federal science and technology budget for 2006--which excludes the Pentagon's even larger weapons development budget--would have been much worse but for the fact that "the president really cares about science."

However, most science policy analysts are wringing their hands over the tiny increase sought for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a small rebound for the National Science Foundation (NSF) after a cut in 2005, and reductions in the science budgets at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the departments of energy and defense. At a time when other countries are ramping up their scientific efforts, they say, the United States shouldn't be resting on its laurels.

"The inadequate investments in research proposed by the Administration would erode the research and innovative capacity of our nation," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the 62-member Association of American Universities. AAU and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology both call the president's 2006 request "disappointing," with FASEB adding that the proposed funding levels could "discourage our most talented young people from pursuing careers in biomedical research."

The 0.7% increase for the $28 billion NIH, coming 2 years after a succession of double-digit boosts that resulted in a 5-year budget doubling, prompted agricultural imagery from newly installed Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael Leavitt: "We have planted. It's now time for us to harvest the fruit." Even science-savvy legislators from the president's own party struggled to find a bright side. Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Science Committee, seized on an 8% boost to the $450 million intramural research budget at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) even as the president proposed eliminating a $137 million precompetitive technology research program the institute oversees. "Given an overall cut to nondefense domestic discretionary spending, science programs fared relatively well," Boehlert noted. "I was especially pleased to see the significant increases for the NIST labs."

The 2006 budget request, following tradition, unfolded in a series of briefings by agency heads. Here are some highlights, brought to you by Science reporters who were there.

Please click on image for full-size table

NIH: The president's budget includes a 42% boost, to $333 million, for a set of cross-NIH initiatives to support translational research, known collectively as the Roadmap. Biodefense efforts would receive a 3.2% hike, to $18 billion, and another $26 million would be allocated for the Neuroscience Blueprint involving 15 institutes. NIH is also getting $97 million more to develop countermeasures for a radiological or chemical attack.

Still, the overall news is grim, as most institutes would get increases averaging about 0.5%. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni says he hopes to protect the number of funded investigators by shifting money from some clinical and center grants that expire in 2006 into new and competing grants, which will rise for the first time since 2003. But the average grant size of $347,000 would remain flat, and the proportion of applications funded would continue to plummet, to a projected 21%. NIH is boosting postdoc stipends by 4% and increasing health benefits. But the result is a 2% drop in the number that would be supported. "We think it's the right choice," Zerhouni says.

NSF: A $113 million increase proposed for the agency's $4.2 billion research budget hides a $48 million transfer from the U.S. Coast Guard to take on the annual cost of breaking ice to keep the shipping lanes open in the Antarctic. The 2006 request includes funding for all five of the agency's major new facilities under construction, but it lacks two expected new starts in 2006: a network of ocean observatories and an Alaskan regional research vessel. NSF Director Arden Bement says he hopes to request money for them in 2007 if the budget climate warms up. The biggest hit comes in the agency's education programs.

NASA: The news was good for missions that would support the president's vision for eventual lunar and martian exploration by humans. The lunar program, which would be focused on technology more than science, would nearly triple, from $52 million to $135 million, and Mars projects would jump from $681 million to $723 million. The largest increase would go to developing a rocket capable of taking humans beyond Earth orbit; the Constellation project would more than double, to $1.12 billion in 2006.The one exception to that rule is human research: Funding for studying the effects of space on astronauts would plummet from $1 billion to $807 million for 2006.

The biggest losers would be missions to the outer planets and Earth-observing activities.

Energy: As part of the 4% cut for the Office of Science, Department of Energy officials want to pull the plug on a $140 million experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, to study the physics of particles that contain the bottom quark. Science chief Ray Orbach says the Large Hadron Collider being completed at CERN, the European particle physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, would cover the same territory as BTeV, which was set to begin construction this year, and that the savings will go toward developing a future neutrino detector at Fermilab. "Maybe it's not that they're trying to drive science from the United States, but boy, they're sure making it look like they are," says Sheldon Stone, a physicist at Syracuse University and BTeV co-spokesperson. Operations at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, the primary accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, will be curtailed, with funding for only 1400 hours of experiments compared with a scheduled 3600 hours this year.

FDA: The Food and Drug Administration wants $30 million more to expand a network of state labs that can handle threats to food safety, an area former HHS secretary Tommy Thompson says is vulnerable to terrorism. It also hopes to hire 25 more people to clear up a backlog of reports submitted on potential safety problems with drugs that are already on the market. "It's a step in the right direction," says Jerry Avorn, a pharmacoepidemiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the author of Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs. But any changes, he says, also require a new "culture of openness."

Homeland Security: The department wants $227 million for a new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to sniff out attempts to bring bombs into the country. Several federal agencies will contribute staffers to the new office, which President Bush mentioned in last month's State of the Union address.

Defense: Although the Pentagon's basic research account would slump by 13%, officials hope to scale up a pilot scholarship program to attract more U.S. citizens into government defense jobs. The first 25 awards in the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation program are due to be announced this spring, and the 2006 request would allow for up to 100 2-year undergraduate and graduate scholarships in 15 disciplines.

Graduates must return the favor by working for the department. But Michael Corradini, a mechanical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, worries that the requirement could scare off potential applicants. He suggests instead that graduates should be required to do a summer internship in the department. "If students have a meaningful experience during the internships," he says, "they might be inclined to pursue a DOD career."

The $2.5 trillion proposed budget now goes to Congress, which will tinker with the president's priorities and add in its own. That means the fate of these and other research programs, although traditionally nonpartisan, will be shaped by larger forces--from Social Security to tax policy--stirring the political waters.

With reporting by Amitabh Avasthi, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Jennifer Couzin, Marie Granmar, Jocelyn Kaiser, Eli Kintisch, Andrew Lawler, and Charles Seife.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 11 February 2005

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