Science & Technology in Congress
On January 21, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) introduced the National Research Investment Act of 1997 (S. 124). The bill's stated purpose is to double the amount that the federal government invests in basic science and medical research by FY 2007, from $32.5 billion to $65 billion. In his comments introducing the bill, Sen. Gramm pointed to the decline of funding for research and development as a percentage of the federal budget, dropping from 5.7% in 1965 to 1.9% in 1997. The Senator also noted that for the first time in 25 years, federal funding for research and development has declined for four years in a row. Sen. Gramm argued that in order to keep the U.S. competitive and on the technological cutting edge, it is necessary to restore funding for science as a high priority of the federal government.
S. 124, cosponsored by Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), would ensure that funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would double from its 1997 authorization of $12.17 billion to $25.5 billion by 2007, according to the schedule laid out in the bill (see table). NIH is the only agency whose authorizations are specifically outlined. Other research and development agencies whose funding is covered by the bill but not specifically addressed include the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technolgy (NIST), EPA, and non-defense research and development by the Department of Energy. The legislation dictates that funding would be allocated by a peer review system, with priority given to basic research. It does not allow the funds to be used for the commercialization of technologies. The purpose is to generate knowledge that will be available to the public in order to stimulate innovation and economic development.
Total NIH Other R&D %Increase from Fiscal Authorization Authorization Programs Previous Year Year for R&D 1998 $35.75 $14.03 $21.73 10.0% 1999 39.00 15.30 23.70 9.1 2000 42.25 16.58 25.68 8.3 2001 45.50 17.85 27.65 7.7 2002 48.75 19.13 29.63 7.1 2003 52.00 20.40 31.60 6.7 2004 55.25 21.68 33.58 6.3 2005 58.50 22.95 35.55 5.9 2006 61.75 24.23 37.53 5.6 2007 65.00 25.50 39.50 5.3
The bill was received with surprise by the science policy community. Sen. Gramm is known as a conservative who is generally more interested in reducing spending than in increasing it. According to his office, the Senator's motive for introducing this legislation is very simple; he feels funding for science is important and that it needs to be supported in order to improve U.S. competitiveness. Also, a staff person mentioned that a young Phil Gramm once toyed with the idea of becoming a physicist, before turning his mind to economics and politics.
Skeptics note that while it authorizes the use of federal funds as detailed in the bill, it does not provide any mechanism for actually providing those funds. In order for the bill to be useful to science, the necessary funds must be appropriated, in addition to being authorized. In the drive to cut the deficit, it seems unlikely to many that this legislation will succeed. Some skeptics suggest that it may not be intended to. A spokesman for a national association representing research universties suggested that the bill may be an effort to co-opt part of the Administration's agenda, with particular effect on Vice President Al Gore, who is well known for his interest in both science and the presidential election in 2000.
Regardless of the motives of its supporters, the National Research Investment Act is widely held as a good sign for the prospects of science and technology research in the 105th Congress. Sen. Gramm's bill has early on established science funding as a matter of importance. He neatly summarizes the dilemma expressed by those concerned with the issue in his introductory comments on the bill. "If we don't restore the high priority once afforded science and technology in the federal budget and increase federal investment in research, it will be impossible to maintain the United States' position as the technological leader of the world."