Lawmakers Renew Commitment to Science Spending, Despite Budget-Deficit Fears

April 29, 2010

The federal government's promise of more-robust support for scientific research appears to have largely crossed another key hurdle, even as lawmakers fretting about budget deficits scaled down their numbers.

The House of Representatives Science Committee, concluding a daylong series of votes, agreed on Wednesday, 29 to 8, to support a measure that would renew authorization for the America Competes Act, which sets financing levels for research and development at the main federal science agencies.

The National Science Foundation would get $7.5-billion in the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in October, and $10.2-billion in 2015, according to the committee plan, which still needs approval by the full House and Senate to be passed. The original Competes Act of 2007 had projected that the NSF would get $9-billion in 2011 and $13.7-billion in 2015, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The second-largest portion of the bill, the Energy Department's Office of Science, would get $5.2-billion in 2011 and $6.9-billion in 2015. It had been scheduled for $6.5-billion in 2011 and $10.2-billion in 2015, according to the association's analysis.

Congress passed the original Competes Act after the National Academies issued a report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," that recommended the federal government increase its spending on long-term basic research by 10 percent a year for seven years. The Competes Act authorized the doubling in seven years, while the scaled-back measure approved on Wednesday by the House committee would take 10 years.

"These authorization levels are lower than I would like them to be, but I believe they are practical," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat of Tennessee. The spending levels need to reflect "our current dire economic situation," said the panel's topRepublican, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas.

The committee's plan also would push the National Science Foundation to find ways of encouraging more groundbreaking innovations, including the creation of a $12-million program of cash prizes for solving important questions of basic research in science and engineering.

Down the hall from the Science Committee, meanwhile, some members of the House Appropriations Committee were left wondering if they had been too generous with another major provider of federal money to universities, the National Institutes of Health.

Congress last year gave the NIH a one-time budget boost of $10.4-billion over two years, as part of the $787-billion economic-stimulus measure, and some university leaders have expressed worry that the "cliff effect" of such a temporary infusion could cause trouble for their long-term planning.

The director of the NIH, Francis S. Collins, appearing before the Appropriations Committee, was asked by its chairman, Rep.David R. Obey, a Democratic of Wisconsin, if Congress had erred in giving his agency so much cash.

"Is it worth the discombobulation that you have because it's a two-year temporary shot in the arm?" Mr. Obey asked Dr. Collins. "Was it a mistake?"

Dr. Collins quickly discouraged such an interpretation, saying the money "has been a wonderful investment in medical research."

"It does create some stresses for the system" to have so much money for a short period of time," Dr. Collins said. "We are going to be experiencing those stresses, I fear, in FY11, but it was worth every bit of it."