Obama Seeks 1.5% Rise for Basic Research, Emphasizing Economic Benefits

February 13, 2012

President Obama on Monday proposed a 1.5-percent increase in federal spending on basic scientific research for the coming fiscal year, with his heaviest emphasis on driving technologies calculated to have economic benefit.

Mr. Obama, making his annual budget recommendation to Congress, outlined a governmentwide spending plan totaling $3.8-trillion, just 0.2 percent above current-year spending. The president's outsized support for research has been a pattern throughout his four annual budget outlines, even as the nation's economy has struggled.

"We can't cut back on those things that are important for us to grow," Mr. Obama said in describing his spending plan for the 2013 fiscal year to several hundred students at Northern Virginia Community College in the Washington suburb of Annandale, Va.

Congress, with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, hasn't fully granted Mr. Obama his research-related spending requests in the past and isn't likely to do so this year either. But with the White House backing, scientific research has enjoyed relatively strong support as Republicans have pressed for deep cuts in federal spending over all.

The federal government is spending an estimated $30.2-billion to support basic research in the current fiscal year, or about 1.6 percent over last year's amount, according to White House figures. Mr. Obama has recommended a total of $30.6-billion for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins October 1.

Research universities have no guarantees of any outcome in an election-year budget battle, though they again have reason for some optimism. "While it doesn't necessarily get every dollar it asks for," Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, said of the Obama administration, "it usually comes away with something worth talking about."

Tough News for Medical Research

The toughest news in Mr. Obama's science budget may be awaiting those involved in medical research. The administration proposed that the National Institutes of Health, the leading provider of basic research money to universities, get $30.7-billion in 2013, the same as its current-year budget.

The recommendation is largely seen as reflecting the fact that the NIH received more than $10-billion in the 2009 federal economic-stimulus measure, and that its huge size leaves cash-strapped budget-writers struggling each year just to maintain its budget.

For the National Science Foundation, Mr. Obama is seeking $7.37-billion, or 4.8 percent over the current-year amount. The president proposed $5-billion for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, up 2.4 percent, and $17.7-billion for NASA, down 0.5 percent.

"In very difficult times, we think this is a very strong science and technology budget," John P. Holdren, the assistant to the president for science and technology, said in outlining the plan.

The administration's decision to keep the NIH budget level, even before Congress considers possible cuts, could be especially worrying for researchers who rely on the agency. Joseph C. LaManna, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, warned before Monday's announcement that universities will begin losing medical researchers—especially younger scientists—if the NIH budget doesn't start growing in the next two or three years.

The decline in NIH support since the stimulus has been "a fairly steep slope," said Mr. LaManna, a professor of physiology and biophysics, neurology, and neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland.

For now, the NIH is planning a series of steps to help minimize the effects of the tighter budget, including cutting inflation-adjusted increases in grant amounts, and toughening the application process for established researchers.

'An Ally' for the NSF

The mood was more upbeat Monday among officials of the National Science Foundation, which approaches 2013 with both its boost from the White House and its history of Republican support from Rep. Frank R. Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that reviews its budget. "He's particularly an ally on NSF," Mr. Toiv said of Mr. Wolf.

The NSF's director, Subra Suresh, said Monday his areas of research emphasis will include work that could drive economic growth in the United States, including the development of new materials, wireless-communications technologies, and clean-energy alternatives.

The administration was enthusiastic enough on Monday that it revived language in its budget plan calling for a doubling of the budgets of the NSF and two smaller science agencies, as recommended in an influential 2005 report by the National Academies that warned the United States was risking a loss of its global lead in technology. It was only last April, while arguing with Congress over the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, that the White House said it had given up on the doubling goal.

But the president's budget for 2013 did have some unwelcome news for at least a couple individual universities. The administration proposed cutting support for the new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility under construction near Kansas State University. And it included less than half of the $55-million that Michigan State University was expecting in the coming year for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a nuclear-science research project.