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Legislative Alerts

Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-NJ) Editorial in Most Recent Science

Science 16 September 2011:
Vol. 333 no. 6049 p. 1549
DOI: 10.1126/science.1211494

Dueling Visions for Science

Rush Holt
Rush Holt is the U.S. Representative for New Jersey's 12th Congressional District and has a doctoral degree in physics.

A clash is under way in Washington, DC, between two starkly different visions for the U.S. government's role in research and development (R&D). The outcome of this debate will shape the nation's scientific landscape for years to come.

The first vision is a grim and pessimistic “No, we can't” view. Its proponents insist that the federal government can play no substantive role in advancing science or technology. The argument is that the government has been ineffective, that “investment” is a code word for wasteful spending, and that the only way forward is for the government to lower its sights, stop making new investments, and scale back spending. This view is encapsulated in the recently enacted Budget Control Act of 2011, which demands $2.4 trillion in federal spending cuts. Considering that, as a share of the U.S. economy, the government's support for R&D has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1960s, I have little doubt that R&D will bear more than its share of these latest cuts.

A hard spending cap forces false choices: Should the United States invest in badly needed new science instrumentation or in educating inner-city kids? The truth is that the nation must invest in many things. Fortunately, there exists another, far more hopeful vision for the federal government, one that rejects the notion that government budgeting must begin with a hard cap. The recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 demonstrates how federal investment in R&D can drive the economy forward. I was part of the negotiations that put $22 billion of new R&D funding into science agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. How many jobs did these funds create, and how many more will they create in the future? We won't have the final answer for years. How many lab technicians have been hired, and how many electricians wired the labs? The accounting is difficult now, and until the scientific and technological accomplishments have reverberated through the economy, the full effect cannot be known. It appears that the short-term benefits are similar to those of shovel-ready construction projects, and for the long term, past experience is very promising. The return on spending by the NSF over the decades appears to be very large. And the most comprehensive study of the economics of the Apollo space program found that its $25 billion in government investments returned $181 billion to the economy1.

Science is usually a smart investment for a nation's future, and is more important today than ever before. America's inflation-adjusted borrowing costs have fallen to historic lows. When the private sector is not making enough investments and consumers are not spending, Congress should make the investments that will pay large dividends: public and private scientific research, education in science and engineering, and infrastructure projects to support scientific growth. An investment-focused vision for America could begin by fulfilling the commitments made in the America COMPETES Act, enacted in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010. That law authorized a doubling of the budgets at key science agencies and created the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) to fund transformative research on energy technologies. If Congress were to fulfill that law's vision for scientific investment, it would both create good-paying jobs today and lay the groundwork for a far stronger economy tomorrow.

This will be a daunting task. With the Budget Control Act, Congress appears to have said, in effect, that federally sponsored science has no role to play in advancing the economy, that unemployment is a problem that only time will cure, and that the nation's best days are behind us. How contrary to American tradition that would be! It must not prevail.

1Economic Impact of Stimulated Technological Activity (Midwest Research Institute, Kansas City, MO, November 1971).
Photo Credit: ImageZoo/Corbis

FY12 Spending Debate Comes to a Close

Congress completed, and the President signed into law, the FY12 appropriations bill. The $915 billion spending bill wraps up the remaining nine appropriations measures. The bill provides funding for programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Under the bill, the NIH funding for FY12 is $30.7 billion, which is $299 million over FY11. This represents a modest 0.8% increase over FY11. This is less than the 3.3% increase recommended by President Obama and the House Appropriations Committee but slightly more than the cut the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to.

Funding for NIH’s largest institutes includes:

  • National Cancer Institute (NCI): The conferees approved $5.082 billion for NCI, up 0.5% from $5.054 billion in FY11.
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID): NIAID funding would increase nearly 0.5%, or $24.236 million, from about $4.475 billion in FY11 to $4.499 billion in FY12.
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI): Conferees agreed to spend $3.085 billion for NHLBI, down 0.5%, or $16.617, million from FY11.
  • National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS): The conferees approved NIGMS funding at $2.434 billion, an increase of $400 million over FY11.

The agreement does not include any transfer of NIH funding to the Global HIV/AIDS fund; all FY12 funding for the fund is included in the State-Foreign Operations portion of the conference agreement.

The conference agreement also includes language to implement the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and eliminate the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), transferring the various NCRR programs to other institutes and centers. The conferees also provided NCATS with up to $10 million for the Cures Acceleration Network.

President Obama Releases 2013 Budget Proposal

President Obama has remained steadfastly supportive of a strong federally backed scientific research enterprise. Even in austere times President Obama has strived to make scientific research a priority in his budgets. Yet, with the unveiling of his FY13 budget proposal on February 13, the scientific community has cause for both celebrate and concern.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

First the good news: President Obama proposed $7.3 billion for the NSF. This is a $340 million increase over FY12—the largest increase in spending for any federal research agency. According to Obama’s budget, NSF's proposed budget includes $5.98 billion, up 5.2%, for its six research directorates and $876 million, up 5.6%, for its education directorate.

In a statement released by the NSF, it states, “this investment in science and engineering reflects an increase in core research funding and moves our nation forward by connecting the science and engineering enterprise with potential economic, societal and educational benefits in areas critical to job creation and a growing economy."

Under this budget, the Directorate for Biological Sciences will be slated for a small increase; however, the NSF’s funding priorities will mainly target advanced manufacturing, clean energy technologies, cybersecurity, and STEM education. These areas are aligned with the Administration’s government-wide priorities in these critical areas.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Now the concern: The President’s budget proposes flat funding of $30.7 billion for the NIH. While acknowledging that the nation is in tough budgetary times, flat funding will mean that the NIH budget has failed to keep pace with biomedical inflation for 10 consecutive years, resulting in a budget that, when adjusted for inflation, is 20% smaller than a decade ago.

Under this plan, most of the NIH institutes would receive roughly the same amount of funding as in FY12, except for the new National Center for Advancing Translation Sciences (NCATS), which could see an increase of $64 million to $639 million.

During his State of the Union address, President Obama unequivocally pledged his support for research, stating, “Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells... Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future.”

Yet because of ongoing flat-funded NIH budgets, cures will be delayed, jobs will be eliminated, and American leadership and innovation will be jeopardized.

The release of the President’s budget signifies the beginning of the budget and appropriations process. Typically, what the President proposes, the Congress disposes. President Obama’s budget is already considered “DOA” by many leaders on Capitol Hill, allowing Congress to move forward and determine its budget priorities. It is unclear how Congress will fund the medical research enterprise. While historically, science, research, and innovation are seen by members of both political parties as federal investments worth making, many in Congress are committed to slashing all federal program budgets. Additionally, the looming sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act would mean a further cut of 7 -10% in all federal programs in FY13.

The CLS will continue to work with the Administration and the Congress to ensure the best possible funding outcomes for the medical research enterprise.