Federal Spending on Science, Already Down, Would Remain Tight

Obama's budget proposes modest increases for several agencies that support university research

March 05, 2014

The Obama administration, constrained by spending caps imposed by Congress, suggested on Tuesday a federal budget for 2015 that would mean another year of cuts in the government’s spending on basic scientific research.

The budget of the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of basic research money to universities, would be $30.4-billion, an increase of just $200-million from the current year. After accounting for inflation, that would be a cut of about 1 percent.

Three other leading sources of research money to universities—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—also would see their science budgets shrink or grow slower than the expected 1.7-percent rate of inflation.

Over all, federal spending on research and development would increase only 1.2 percent, before inflation, in the 2015 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. The portion for basic research would fall 1 percent, a reduction that inflation would nearly triple.

President Obama’s chief science adviser, John P. Holdren, conceded disappointment. "These average increases are plainly modest," Mr. Holdren said at a briefing to outline the science portions of the administration’s annual budget recommendation to Congress.

Others were more blunt. "The president’s FY15 budget does disappointingly little to close the nation’s innovation deficit," the Association of American Universities said in a statement.

The spending plan "does not reflect the potential the U.S. has to advance scientific discovery," said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a lobbying alliance.

‘Missed Opportunity’

Over all, Mr. Obama submitted a governmentwide budget proposal totaling $3.9-trillion. Mr. Holdren emphasized that the president was disproportionally generous to science in a blueprint that allowed only a 0.2-percent increase across all discretionary programs, due to spending caps for 2014 and 2015 set in a bipartisan agreement approved by Congress.

And in a bid to demonstrate its support for spending beyond those caps, the administration’s proposal on Tuesday included an "Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative" that would approve $56-billion more through steps that include cutting tax breaks on retirement accounts for the wealthy.

Of that extra money, the NIH would get an additional $970-million. The NSF, with a recommended level of $7.3-billion for 2015, would get an additional $552-million. NASA, with a proposed budget of $17.5-billion, would get $886-million more.

But with Congress unlikely to authorize those additional amounts, the idea of a separate Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative may prove to be a "missed opportunity," said Matthew Hourihan, director of budget policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The administration instead could have proposed additional science money for the base budget, and could have left the prospect of additional federal spending for items that might have been tougher for Congress to resist, he said.

The AAU agreed. "We appreciate the effort to fund additional research through a separate initiative, but we strongly believe these investments should receive greater priority under the caps," the association said in its statement.

University scientists have already been feeling financial pressure in recent years. Before this year, the NIH budget already had fallen 14 percent over the previous decade in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to AAAS figures. The NSF, one of the most protected areas of federal science spending in recent years, gained 11 percent in real terms over that period, while total federal spending on research and development fell 10 percent, also relative to inflation, the AAAS reported.