Posted in: Annual Report

From Incident to Inclination

By | September 10, 2010

The high deficit preys on the minds of federal financiers; as “recession” and “downturn” become everyday terminology, talk of diminishing and cutting programs increases. While other areas of the federal budget hit the proverbial chopping block, one sector remains relatively safe from the discussion: scientific and medical research spending. While a few projects, such as NASA’s effort to return a human to the moon by 2020, were eliminated, most government research programs emerged intact, if not strengthened. The targets of this extension are widespread, and no simplifying trend can accurately describe the nature of all such spending. However, the motivation remains the same: proponents argue that funding research is good for the economy and for Americans’ well-being. Thus, as long as jobs continue to be scarce and cures remain in demand, any major reduction in scientific and medical research spending seems unlikely.

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Defining Research

Research spending, unlike defense spending or Social Security, lacks defined boundaries even for those in the field. Regardless of the numerous topics of study, research spending is categorized and typically analyzed from the money requested for five major federal organizations. The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports non-medical research and education in science and engineering. The NSF issues competitive grants to researchers, funding about 10,000 proposals annually. The annual budget is approximately $6.9 billion.

NSF’s counterpart, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the primary federal agency responsible for biomedical and health-related research, investing over $30 billion in medical research in 2010.  The NIH uses a competitive grant process to award the bulk of its funding to research institutions. In addition, about 10% of the NIH’s budget supports research in its own laboratories in Maryland.

Physical science research relies greatly on funding from the Office of Science in the Department of Energy (DOE). The Office of Science oversees research programs in chemistry, biology, physics, and computing. A budget of $4.8 billion funds grant proposals and maintains ten national laboratories, available for use by government, academic, and private-sector researchers.  Other programs in the DOE also fund energy research and the development of nuclear weapons technology.  All told, the DOE budgeted $10.7 billion for research in 2010, a five percent increase from the previous year.

Spacetrekkers rely on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has a varied annual budget depending on anticipated projects; the organization received $18.7 billion in 2010. Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in addition to its most prominent function of writing and enforcing regulations, conducts environmental assessment, research, and education. The organization provides both grants and funding to self-directed projects, and had a budget of about $10.5 billion in 2010, about 8% of which was allocated to research.  In total, the scientific research budget comprises $68.9 billion, approximately 2% of the entire 2010 budget.

Expanding Research Funding

Despite growing concern about the budget deficit, boosts in allocations seem to be the trend for federally-funded science organizations.  The 2009 stimulus bill included unprecedented boosts to research spending.  The NSF received $3 billion from the stimulus, an amount equal to half its annual budget. The stimulus also included $1.6 billion for the Office of Science and $10 billion over two years for the NIH. Such provisions led John Marburger, head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under George W. Bush, to call the stimulus “a singular event in the history of science funding.”

President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal requests further boosts for science spending. The National Science Foundation received $550 million above what it received in 2010, an 8% increase. Similar proposals were shown for the Department of Energy. Funding for wind-power programs climbed by 50% in the 2011 proposal, while solar power funding increased by 34%. Federal funding for medical research, particularly for cancer, will also increase: the budget for the National Institutes of Health grew by $1 billion, the largest boost in eight years.

The glaring exception to this trend is NASA. The administration proposed shutting down NASA’s Constellation project after a review committee concluded that the program had no chance of reaching its goal of putting a human on the moon by 2020. NASA has already spent $9 billion on the mission, and had projected that returning to the moon would cost a total of $97 billion through 2020.  While NASA’s overall budget would increase slightly under the 2011 budget proposal, the new proposal will significantly reduce NASA’s role in the future of human space flight.

Although government researchers are hopeful that funding for research will continue to grow, history provides some reason to be skeptical: Science funding increased significantly in 1998, but what followed was a pattern of shrinking budgets that persisted until 2003. Advocates from NSF, NIH, and beyond all support further expansions in funding for their work.  However, Raynard Kington, director of the NIH, has noted that his organization is hedging its bets, avoiding long-term commitments that assume that the research budget will continue to increase.

A Necessary Experiment

In light of the ballooning budget deficit, scientists are increasingly called upon to justify federal funding for their work.  Some advocates argue that spending money on research contributes to economic growth. Cynthia Baebler, manager of the Ames Site Office at Argonne National Labs, told the HPR. “The United States cannot stop doing continuous research and development to stay competitive in the world, and to remain an economic power.” One advocacy group has estimated that every dollar of NIH funding produces $2.21 in economic activity.  While critics have questioned the accuracy of such estimates, the promise that research will create jobs and improve Americans’ lives has thus far proved convincing for policymakers.

More fundamentally, skeptics might question whether the research conducted with government funds could be carried out by the private sector. The primary argument for government funding relates to the idea of generating “pure science” – the most basic laws and properties that guide understanding of global phenomena – and the public benefits that result. In economic terms, pure science is a public good: once the knowledge exists, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent others from using it. Basic science, in turn, leads to gains in applied science, which generates the improvements in public health, economic growth, and energy production that legislators value. However, there is a dilemma in that basic science does not generate much money. The federal government must provide subsidies for basic science, for there is no economic incentive for private companies to pursue this route.

From Incident to Inclination

The economy’s future remains uncertain, and more time needs to pass before the true effects of the stimulus package and the 2010 budget can be determined. Yet, the conditions seem ripe for continued funding expansion, or at least static contribution, in the near future. Continued economic uncertainty will fuel the investment in potential job sources, and as long as medical maladies exist, there will always be a movement to eradicate them. Thus, until economic conditions shift, or reliable statistics arise which disprove the connection between research and innovation, there is potential for this recent development to become a longer-term trend.

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