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Science Headed for Big Stimulus Boost

After years of flat budgets, U.S. scientists have been hoping for the federal government to boost their prospects in a rough economy. If a fact sheet released late yesterday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) is accurate, the stimulus package that House and Senate leaders agreed upon yesterday will be manna from heaven.

Most of the numbers reflect gaudy spending for science agencies that the House of Representatives proposed in mid-January. They also suggest that science won out over domestic spending priorities, notably federal assistance to state budgets. With state budgets in the red across the country, the House wanted to spend $79 billion on the assistance but the Senate only $39 billion. Science lobbyists had feared that in trying to come up with a compromise while controlling total spending, negotiators from the House and Senate would have to cut science funding. But although the final spending for state assistance is $54 billion in the fact sheet, science agencies made out like bandits:

  • The National Institutes of Health will receive $8.5 billion, along with $1.5 billion for NIH to renovate university research facilities. The large numbers reflect an amendment to the Senate version of the bill successfully added by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was one of three key Republican senators whose support for the stimulus package allowed it to pass the Senate.
  • The Department of Energy's Office of Science, which supports U.S. physical science, will receive $1.6 billion.
  • $400 million will be provided to fund a new mini agency within DOE called the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy. President Barack Obama's energy secretary, Steve Chu, is a fan. Now Congress has bestowed their blessings—and big money—on his dream energy program.
  • NASA will get $1 billion including $400 million for climate change research.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology will receive $580 million.
  • The National Science Foundation would receive the full $3 billion increase that the House had passed last month. That's a 50% boost to its $6 billion budget. The breakdown of that number is not clear, but the House version contained $2 billion more for research grants; $900 million for three infrastructure programs, including a revived $200 million extramural facilities competition; and $100 million for two education programs.

According to the terms of the stimulus deal, this money must be spent roughly over the next 18 months. And a Pelosi staffer called the fact sheet "preliminary." But if it reflects what's in the final version of the bill that staffers are currently finalizing, "it's a huge surprise,"  says Toby Smith of the Association of American Universities. "It really shows a strong base of support, both on Capitol Hill and from the Obama Administration."