Obama Budget Seeks to Slowly Rebuild Spending on Scientific Research

April 10, 2013

The Obama administration on Wednesday proposed a budget for the 2014 fiscal year that suggests slowly rebuilding federal support for science, with an emphasis on favored fields that include clean energy and biotechnology.

The administration's 2014 spending plan includes a total of $33.2-billion for basic research, an increase of about 4 percent over fiscal-2012 levels. It proposes total research-and-development spending of $143-billion, about 1.3 percent more than the fiscal-2012 amount.

The White House, throughout its annual budget, avoided making the usual direct comparisons to current-year spending because agencies are still calculating the full effects of the cuts from the sequestration measure that took effect last month.

Over all, the sequestration measure cost federal agencies about 5 percent of their budgets, leaving the administration struggling to meet earlier promises of expanded spending on research.

President Obama, in announcing his budget for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, repeatedly emphasized his hope that Congress would reverse the "foolish across-the-board spending cuts" required by the sequestration law.

He listed research spending as one of the areas where greater federal spending was needed to help expand the economy. The president's governmentwide 2014 budget totals $3.8-trillion, an increase of nearly 5 percent, given estimates of about $3.6-trillion in 2013 spending after sequestration is included.

Among specific agencies, the administration's 2014 budget proposes $31.3-billion for the National Institutes of Health, the leading provider of basic research money at universities. That's about 1.5 percent above its 2012 level. The president's budget proposes $7.6-billion for the National Science Foundation, up 8.4 percent from 2012 levels.

The administration proposed more than $5-billion for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, an increase of nearly 6 percent. And one of the smaller agencies that spend money on science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was recommended for a budget of $928-million, up 23 percent over 2012 levels. Part of its increase would finance a new NIST program to help universities work with companies and government agencies to develop advanced manufacturing technologies.

Specific Goals

In recent days, Mr. Obama has sought to build interest in scientific investment by describing plans for projects that include a comprehensive study of the brain and the capture of an interplanetary asteroid. In his budget outline on Wednesday, he listed "clean-energy technologies, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, and new materials" as additional areas of emphasis.

Advocates of federal spending on science have said that such specific goals may help generate enthusiasm in Congress for their priorities, but might hinder more open-ended scientific investigations that could be more useful to the country in the long run.

Some of the proposed increases in basic research would be enabled by cuts in military-related research, which would be reduced by 5.2 percent, to $73.2-billion, the administration said. The Pentagon's spending on basic science, however, would hold level at nearly $12-billion.

The president also affirmed in the budget his earlier pledge to increase research into gun-related violence. His proposal includes $10-million for research on the topic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and $20-million to build a database of violent-death reports that could help researchers identify causes and solutions.

Mr. Obama also proposed expanding federal efforts to improve the teaching of science at all educational levels, including college. His budget suggests consolidating programs for science education that are scattered across various federal agencies, and spending $123-million on research into how new technologies could be used to improve science instruction. The administration's plan includes $79-million, an increase of $13-million over 2012 levels, for a program to give undergraduates more exposure to hands-on research.

The plan to consolidate science-teaching programs may be premature, said Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics who worked in the White House science office in Mr. Obama's first term. The plan appears "too sweeping," without enough thought to the types of programs that actually deserve separate treatment, said Mr. Wieman, now a professor of physics at the University of British Columbia.

A 'Lifeline for Medical Research'

The administration's budget also includes $714-million for a high-security federal laboratory for studying food-related pathogens at Kansas State University, reversing its decision last year to end support for the project. And the Humane Society of the United States said it was pleased the president's budget contains a plan to finance increased sanctuary places for government-owned chimpanzees no longer needed for research.

University representatives and other advocates of science spending typically take a few days to analyze a president's budget before offering detailed assessments. Research!America, an association of companies, universities, and other supporters of federal spending on science, called the administration's budget a badly needed "lifeline for medical research."

If Congress doesn't endorse a similar plan, sequestration and 10 years of across-the-board spending cuts "will drag our nation down from its leadership position in research and development as other countries aggressively ramp up investments," the group said. A leading representative of research institutions, the Association of American Universities, said it was encouraged by its initial review of the proposals.

Mr. Obama's budget "offers hope that the nation will continue to make science and education investments a top national priority while taking serious steps to reduce budget deficits," Hunter R. Rawlings, the group's president, said in a written statement.

Congressional Republicans were widely critical of Mr. Obama's overall budget recommendations, and those involved in science policy followed along. The chairman of the House science committee, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said he was especially skeptical of the asteroid mission and of the proposed subsidies for alternative energy. The committee plans hearings in coming weeks to explore the ideas, Mr. Smith said.