Science Funding at the Millennial Threshold:
As part of its fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget request, the Clinton Administration proposed a Research Fund for America. The Fund outlines significant increases for most nondefense R&D programs, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) singled out for particularly healthy budget increases.
President Clinton’s proposed increases for scientific research were initially met with skepticism and a bit of anger as congressional leaders realized how the Research Fund for America would be offset. Constrained by the discretionary caps imposed by last year’s balanced budget agreement, the Administration proposed using the anticipated revenues from a pending tobacco settlement. However, the tobacco deal has become a highly charged issue within Congress, and any final agreement now seems unlikely to provide revenues for many scientific programs beyond tobacco related health research. In order to fund the requested increases, therefore, Congress would have to consider raising the discretionary caps, which would be a politically dangerous path to follow given the upcoming election. A more likely course of action would be to fund all discretionary programs under the existing caps, requiring offsetting cuts on non-R&D programs.
Last year, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-TX), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced the “National Research Investment Act” (S. 1305) to double federal investments in most civilian science agencies over the next 10 years. Given the troubles encountered by the Administration’s budget, many science advocates view S. 1305 as the most promising funding initiative currently on the table.
Introduced in October, the bill currently has 16 cosponsors and it has gathered endorsements from many private-sector groups. A letter supporting S. 1305 was recently submitted to Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, signed by presidents and vice presidents of organizations such as the American Electronics Association, the Information Technology Association of America, the International Semiconductor Industry Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Frist held a hearing at the end of April on the topic of federal investments in research and included the four original cosponsors of S. 1305 as witnesses. Proponents of S. 1305, the “Double R&D” bill, are hoping that the hearing and the letter of endorsement will provide more exposure to the issue and garner additional support from congressional leaders.
A companion to S. 1305 was introduced on the House side on April 1 by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) and 16 cosponsors. The Kennedy bill (H.R. 3660) is identical to S. 1305 except for one point. The Kennedy bill offers to double R&D for two additional agencies, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Transportation. Of crucial importance though, is that the total amount of funding authorized by the House bill remains the same as S. 1305, even though the Senate version funds fewer agencies.
The Administration’s concept for increasing federal R&D was essentially dead on arrival, and S. 1305 may also fail to gain enough support. Some congressional leaders are uneasy about signing on to legislation that would bind future Congresses, especially since no one knows what the state of the economy will be in 10 years. Proponents argue that the bill helps to establish federal investments in civilian science and technology as a national priority. With a budget surplus at hand four years earlier than anticipated, major decisions about allocating those funds for future years are being made now. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and tax cuts have already become high priority issues on the political agenda. The groups that began the movement to double federal R&D believe that if science and technology are not injected into the debate, the opportunity to influence the future of scientific research will be lost.
Congress has fewer than 40 working days left to pass the 13 appropriations
bills. While politicians and the science community are likely to continue
to debate the long-term vision of American science and technology, it
is up to the appropriators to determine the bottom line for R&D funding.