Budget Outlook for Science is Bleak

If campaign rhetoric has predictive value, science will do well under the Obama administration, both in money and respectful attention by political leaders. Respect comes free and may be counted upon, given the widespread revulsion toward the Bush administration’s science bashing. But when it comes to money, a prudent strategy for those dependent on federal support for research would be to prepare for a continuing drought.

During the campaign, Obama called for “doubling federal support for research over ten years,” with an emphasis on “expanding research initiatives at American colleges and universities” and “new research grants to the most outstanding early-career researchers.” As welcome as that would be, a 10-year doubling works out to annual increases of 7 percent; deduct inflation, which is trending sharply upwards, and the budget picture remains bleak.

The 7-percent pledge was made before the bottom dropped out of the American economy, making it increasingly doubtful that the new administration can muster such an increase for research. The federal deficit is huge and growing, with revenues down because of rising unemployment and the stock market crash. With the boom era in endowment growth over, academe’s own finances are increasingly under strain. Meanwhile the line for governmental help is long and growing. Science is not likely to rate a high priority, despite kind words from politicians about its importance.

Though various groups of researchers tried to spotlight the support of science as an issue of major national importance during the election campaign, politicians and the public showed little interest. In surveys of public worries, science never made the list. During and after the primaries, the candidates brushed off invitations to debate science. They didn’t say so publicly, but there are no votes in championing science, and therefore it did not merit precious time on the campaign trail. Apart from a few pro-Obama petitions featuring Nobel laureates and other scientific luminaries, the scientific profession did not enter the campaign. When the economy went into a disastrous nosedive during the summer, proposals and demands for economic salvation overwhelmed all other topics.

Ironically, the restorative amounts that would be required for recent lean years in academic science are minuscule relative to the trillion-dollar rescues that the government has provided for failing financial firms and industry—with, apparently, still more casualties to come. Though there is a general perception that the federal government lavishes untold billions on academic science, the total amounts are a small slice of the federal research and development portfolio, which currently totals $147 billion. Of that amount, R&D in colleges and universities receive about $29 billion, a sum that has changed little over the past several years.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which spreads its money beyond the boundaries of academe, has been stuck at around $30 billion a year since its budget underwent a five-year doubling that ended in 2003. NIH reports that its annual budget for behavioral and social science research has remained at approximately $3.060 billion for the past three years. Doubts have been expressed that it’s actually that high, but, in any case, it hasn’t grown.

Politicians are often drawn to proposed technological fixes for severe economic and political problems, a la John F. Kennedy’s embrace of the moon landing goal as a public diversion after the disastrous Bay of Pigs landing. Another instance is the current, though fading, romance with corn-based ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. The incoming Obama administration appears to be no exception to the lure of technology. Pre- and early post-election discussions indicate a fascination with electronic record keeping as both a cost-saving boon in health care and a stimulus for jobs in the information technologies. “Green” energy and even a revival of the nuclear-power industry are also attracting attention for their environmental worth and job creation.

Science is a poor contender in America’s present day financial circumstances. Its importance and needs are recognized, but are not likely to be seen as urgent. When Oliver Twist, with his empty gruel bowl, pleaded, “Please, sir, I want some more,” he got whacked on the head with a ladle. Science will be treated respectfully, but whether it will get more appears doubtful. ♦

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