Bush Budget Plays Favorites

President George W. Bush's first budget request to Congress sends a decidedly mixed message to scientists. The 2002 budget outline, released today, calls for a record boost for biomedical research, but very little new money--and some cuts--for virtually all other fields. It is unclear, however, if Congress will go along with the plan.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the big winner for the fiscal year that begins 1 October. Bush is asking for a 13.8% boost, to $23.1 billion. Details on exactly how the money will be distributed across NIH's dozens of institutes and centers won't be available until early April. But some biomedical research advocates are already promising to press for an even higher raise, to $23.7 billion.

Other major science agencies fared far worse. As reported earlier (Science, 23 February, p. 1463), the National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive a minuscule $56 million increase, amounting to 1.3% of its $4.4 billion budget. Its $3.35 billion research account would actually shrink, as Bush requested $200 million, including $90 million in new funds, for a new state-based initiative to link universities with local school districts to improve science and math instruction. The mathematics division is the only research winner, getting $20 million more for a variety of individual and group projects; graduate students in many disciplines would also get a boost in their stipends.

A brief statement issued by NSF Director Rita Colwell praised the president for supporting these three areas but was silent on how the overall request pales in comparison to last year's 13.5% boost and reverses the doubling-in-5-years trajectory that she and the scientific community have been seeking. Neal Lane, President Clinton's science adviser and Colwell's predecessor at NSF, felt no such constraints, however. "It's absurd," he said, "not just because of the imbalance [with NIH], but also because it sends exactly the wrong message to students who might want to go into science, and to industry, which relies on academic research for its ability to innovate."

NASA would receive a 2% increase, to $14.5 billion, but most of the new money could be swallowed by an expected $4 billion overrun in the cost of the international space station. A Pluto mission and a solar probe would be canceled to free up money for Mars missions and new rocket engines. Similarly, the agency would have to cancel two smaller earth-sensing missions to finance its Earth Observing System, which plans to build and launch a new satellite.

The Department of Energy (DOE) faces a 3% cut, to $19 billion, which is likely to squeeze research funded by DOE's $3.4 billion Office of Science. The budget also calls for strengthening oversight of major research projects and suspending those that "subsidize large companies."

At the Department of Interior, science lobbyists are scrambling to convince administration officials to step back from reported plans to cut the U.S. Geological Survey's budget by as much as 22%. Meanwhile, at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, level budgets may leave research programs largely intact.

Congress is unlikely to leave the Bush plan unchanged. The first test will come by 1 April, when a Senate budget committee must issue roadmaps to the spending panels that oversee specific agencies. Lane and others are counting on legislators to restore much of the funding, but any boosts may draw a fight from an Administration determined to hold down spending and lower taxes.

Related sites

The Bush Budget

Bush's Address to Congress