Obama Holds Out Research as Rare Exception From Budget Cuts

February 14, 2011

President Obama on Monday proposed budget increases for the leading sources of federal money for university research, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, setting up a showdown with Republicans seeking steep governmentwide spending cuts.

Declaring an exception to what both parties see as an overall need for painful reductions in domestic spending, Mr. Obama issued a budget recommendation for the 2012 fiscal year in which nondefense research and development would total $66.8-billion, or 6.5 percent higher than fiscal-2010 levels.

Under the president's proposal, the NIH would get $31.8-billion in fiscal 2012, up 2.4 percent from its fiscal-2010 levels. The NSF would receive $7.8-billion, up 13 percent from 2010, while the Energy Department's Office of Science would take in $5.4-billion, a 10.7-percent increase from 2010. The average increase for federal research expenditures is well above the nation's 2.7-percent rate of inflation over the past two years.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Mr. Obama is setting the priority on research at the same time he's proposing to eliminate or scale back more than 200 programs throughout the government. The president's proposed cuts fall in areas that include the military, low-income heating assistance, and the Pell grant program. Some are programs "that I care deeply about," Mr. Obama said in unveiling his budget plan Monday morning at the Parkville Middle School and Center for Technology, in Baltimore. But the nation's current economic troubles only reinforce the need to emphasize research so Americans can "outbuild and out-innovate and out-educate" the rest of the world, the president said.

Advocates of university research had been bracing for a tight budget, while holding out hope that the president would set an aggressive target at the start of budget negotiations with Republicans determined to use their re-established majority in the House of Representatives to force deep spending cuts. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the nation's largest coalition of biomedical-research associations, last week urged Mr. Obama to insist that federal research spending at least keep pace with inflation.

Preserving university research would help protect a sector of the economy that ensures high-paying industries and jobs while promising life-saving scientific and medical breakthroughs, said the federation's president, William T. Talman, a professor of neurology at the University of Iowa.

The president's proposal places emphasis on research in areas that include renewable energy, wireless communications, and computer technology. Scientists pursuing military applications also would benefit, with Mr. Obama seeking $2.1-billion in the Pentagon's basic-research budget, up 14.5 percent from fiscal 2010. The few areas facing cuts in their research budgets under Mr. Obama's proposal include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Congress, however, is far from certain to accept the increases. On Friday the House Appropriations Committee issued its long-overdue spending plan for the 2011 fiscal year, which began last October but for which the government still lacks a definitive budget. The Republican proposal, expected to face votes this week in the House, would cut $60-billion governmentwide from fiscal-2010 levels. That proposed one-year cut includes $1.63-billion, or nearly 5.4 percent, from the National Institutes of Health, and $359.5-million, or 5.2 percent, from the National Science Foundation, according to the Association of American Universities.

The House committee's proposed numbers would cut even deeper, and thus fall even farther from Mr. Obama's goals, if applied now, with the 2011 fiscal year already more than one-third complete. Researchers relying on NIH support could find the Republican numbers especially jarring as a burst of agency money from the $787-billion economic-stimulus measure, approved by Congress in February 2009, runs dry.

John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, said the House committee's plan was so extreme he did not expect it to have a realistic chance of passage in both houses of Congress. That scale of cuts would "cripple our ability to advance innovation," Mr. Holdren said on Monday. Yet with the government now running a full-year budget deficit of about $1.6-trillion and total federal debt at $14-trillion, the tradition of broad bipartisan support for scientific research does appear to be faltering.

A Spending Showdown

The new majority leader in the House of Representatives, Eric I. Cantor, a Republican of Virginia, has begun an effort to identify what he considers wasteful government programs, with the National Science Foundation listed as his first target. Mr. Cantor's campaign cites two NSF-supported research projects as examples of "questionable" spending—a $1.2-million study of computer acoustics at Cornell University and a $750,000 project at Northwestern University that's exploring ways to improve collaboration and efficiency in scientific research.

Mr. Cantor, in deriding the work, suggested the two projects were focused on studying "the sound of objects breaking for use by the video-game industry," and analyzing "the on-field contributions of soccer players." The participating professors say their work is far broader, with implications for protecting American jobs and safeguarding U.S. soldiers.

A spokesman for Mr. Cantor, Brad Dayspring, declined to discuss the details of those two grants but said the federal budget deficit would require all government-financed programs to meet a tough standard of value. "We understand that these are not easy cuts," Mr. Dayspring said.

Mr. Obama, though, has repeatedly referred to the nation as facing a "Sputnik moment," in which its future prosperity depends on its willingness even at times of economic stress to make the necessary investments in education and scientific research.

Political leaders can have trouble making that argument to voters given the difficulty in identifying and explaining the connection between complicated research projects and the wide benefits they may provide to society, said James D. Savage, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. That job is made even harder when lawmakers such as Mr. Cantor compound the confusion by ridiculing "funny-sounding science projects," Mr. Savage said.

Different Paths

With the exception of the 2009 stimulus bill, which provided a one-time sum of $21.5-billion for research, total federal support for research and development on university campuses has fallen below inflation since the 2005 fiscal year, NSF data show.

The two largest agencies for distributing research money to universities, the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, have been on different paths. The NIH saw its budget doubled over five years, from $13.6-billion in the 1998 fiscal year to $27.1-billion in 2003, before getting annual increases that failed to keep pace with inflation.

The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, has been awaiting its own doubling, as recommended by a National Academies panel in a 2005 report that warned the United States was falling behind other countries in science and technology. Congress later passed legislation authorizing the necessary budget increases, though it's not clear lawmakers will now support the 6.5-percent annual increases sought by the Obama administration to reach the goal by 2017.

The damage of such budgetary failures will harm more than just the individual university researchers who will have to fire lab technicians and prematurely end investigations, Mr. Talman said last week before entering a meeting with Mr. Cantor.

Mr. Talman somberly counted his personal losses in the previous week as including his godfather, the wife of a colleague, and the parents of two of his faculty members at Iowa, all from diseases for which there are no cures. "That is the message that must resonate," he said.

Correction (2/15, 1:40 p.m.): Two percentages in the third paragraph have been revised to reflect White House calculations of total agency increases rather than increases attributed solely to research expenditures. The percentage for the NIH is 2.4 percent, not 3.3 percent. And the percentage for the Energy Department's Office of Science is 10.7 percent, not 9.1 percent.