Finally, The Budget

After a nearly 5-month delay, the U.S. Congress yesterday finished work on the 2003 federal budget. The $397 billion package includes some good news for scientists, including major boosts for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). But any celebration could be short-lived, as President George W. Bush's recently released 2004 budget request would dramatically slow the growth of those and other science agencies next year.

Lawmakers were supposed to finalize spending plans last October, but election-year politics stalled the budget's passage. Biomedical research advocates were relieved that NIH emerged relatively unscathed. The agency gets a 16%, $3.8 billion increase to $27.2 billion, completing a 5-year doubling. About a third of the new funds--$1.2 billion--will go to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, mainly for bioterrorism research. But NIH advocates can't rest on their laurels. The White House's 2004 request would produce just a 1.8% increase in the agency's budget, far below the 10% that biomedical research advocates say is necessary to sustain programs.

At NSF, an 11% boost to $5.3 billion provides a healthy start on the agency's goal to double in size by 2007. Its research account does even better, rising nearly 13%. "We're pleased that Congress values NSF … [but] we still have a long way to go," says Samuel Rankin of the Coalition for National Science Funding, noting that the 2004 request is some $900 million below what NSF needs to stay on its doubling track.

Another target of doubling proponents, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, notched another lackluster year. Overall spending will rise just 1%, to $3.3 billion.

In other directives, Congress revised widely opposed guidelines in an earlier homeland security bill that appeared to give Texas A&M University the inside track on a new, multimillion dollar research center. And it gave the Forest Service the go-ahead to accelerate a controversial effort to thin forests in order to prevent wildfires.