The long slump in government financial support for research continues into the New Year. Get used to it.
Money for science rates scant attention with Congress deadlocked, military spending taking billions per month, the President wielding his veto authority, and political energies consumed by the marathon election campaign. Bipartisanship is a goner on Capitol Hill, replaced by a surly mood and an astonishingly long run of legislative inactivity.
Well into the new fiscal year that began last October 1, Congress had passed only two of the 13 annual appropriation bills that finance operations of the U.S. government. One of them, quickly approved by the President, provided $459 billion for the Defense Department, an increase of $39 billion over the previous year. Defense research continued to do well in shares of government research and development resources, receiving about $78 billion, or 57 percent of the total, leaving $57 billion, or 42 percent, for non-defense when the final reckoning comes.
The other appropriations bill that got through Congress included a 3.2 percent increase to raise the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to $30.2 billion — modest growth after NIH’s three-year decline in purchasing power. The bill, funding the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments, drew a promised veto from the President because it exceeded his spending preference. An attempt to override the veto fell two votes short of the required two-thirds majority in the House. As a stopgap, Congress adopted a continuing resolution that holds spending by the affected departments to the previous year’s level. That’s better than doing nothing, which has briefly resulted in past showdowns between Congress and the White House, leading to shutdowns of federal offices. However, for planning and carrying out complex federal programs, these frequent bouts of budgetary “chicken” between Congress and the White House are a persistent trial for research administrators and their grant-seeking dependents.
NIH and, to a lesser extent, the National Science Foundation, steadily benefitted for decades from well-placed, devoted legislators who drummed up support and shepherded these agencies through the main roads and back alleys of Congress. Today, as in the past, champions of health research occupy the chairs of the crucial House and Senate appropriations subcommittees for NIH, Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wisconsin) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), respectively. But the old-style calls to arms against medical misfortune no longer arouse bipartisan Congressional enthusiasm. Addressing a proposal to “split the difference” with the President’s budget, Obey, urging the House to override the veto, futilely invoked words that rallied votes in the past: “For medical research into diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, and diabetes at the National Institutes of Health, meeting the President halfway would put us $700 million below the bill we are considering today. That means about 700 fewer grants for research to treat and cure so many deadly diseases.”
The override attempt was backed by a grassroots campaign mobilized by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an aggregation of 14 societies and five associate societies, with some 66,000 members. FASEB, which claims to speak for bench scientists, provided text for its members to e-mail barrage the House and Senate with pleas for a veto override in behalf of “better treatments for conditions like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease” — vote-winning words in the past. In the now-mature era of lobbying by e-mail, it may be that mass-produced pleas carry lower impact on Capitol Hill, or perhaps Congress has grown tone deaf to warring on disease. Whatever the case, the override attempt failed in the House.
The impact of the federal budget impasse on the scope and conduct of academic research is difficult to assess, given that multi-billions of federal dollars continue to flow into universities. But hopeful expectations about compensating financial assistance from other sources are not being fulfilled, at least to any large extent. NSF’s latest report on support for university research (Info Brief, NSF 07-336) is titled “Universities Report Stalled Growth in Federal R&D Funding in FY 2006” (i.e., the year ending September 30, 2006). “When adjusted for inflation,” it states, “academic R&D rose by 1.2 percent in FY 2006.” Funding by state and local governments fell behind the rate of inflation. Industry did better, increasing its academic R&D support by 5.8 percent after a three-year decline, but even so, it accounted for only $2.4 billion of the $47 billion spent on academic R&D. The biggest source of R&D growth was in universities spending their own money, which increased 9.7 percent, or $9.1 billion, in 2006. That in-house spending is naturally concentrated in a relative handful of rich institutions, making them even more competitive for federal grants, while lesser places are at a disadvantage.
How long will the slump in federal R&D spending continue? Fortune tellers should keep in mind that the fast-paced doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 was unexpectedly endorsed and then carried through by Congress just as leaders of biomedical research were warning of a long stretch of steady state financing, or worse.
A safe bet, however, is that relief from the current dearth won’t arrive until after Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009 — maybe not until long after. ♦