Science Catches Clinton's Eye

WASHINGTON, D.C.--After years of leaving the heavy lifting to Congress, President Bill Clinton today requested a massive boost to biomedical and basic science funding in 1999. "It's a historic change of attitude," says one amazed university official. Experts attribute the increase to a booming economy, subsiding partisan tensions, and the R&D community winning over advocates in Washington.

The proposed R&D budget--most of which has been packaged into a $31 billion 21st Century Research Fund for America--contains a significant increase for virtually every R&D agency, with the exception of NASA. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would grow by 8.5%, to $14.8 billion, while the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) budget would increase by 10%, to nearly $3.8 billion. Overall, civilian R&D would rise 6%, to $36.4 billion--marking "the largest commitment to civilian research in the history of the United States," Gore said at a White House briefing. And overall civilian R&D spending would continue growing through 2003 under a plan that, the vice president added, "would have been considered unthinkable only a few short years ago."

The request is a vast improvement for science from last year, when NIH and NSF were accorded boosts that would have barely kept pace with inflation. Now there is growing bipartisan support in Congress for basic science. "That undoubtedly prepared the ground for the Administration to act more aggressively," says Chuck Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another factor was the unexpectedly large revenues pouring into the U.S. treasury, which allowed the White House Office of Management and Budget to push for more spending in areas like R&D. And reading a shift in the political winds, science advocates bombarded the Administration with letters, phone calls, and public statements of support for increased R&D spending.

However, a portion of the proposed biomedical increase depends on approval of a pending legal settlement between the government and tobacco companies. And Clinton has ruled out using a future budget surplus for anything but shoring up Social Security. In addition, some R&D supporters worry that the physical sciences may get neglected in the face of continuing growth in biomedical research budgets.