Obama 2011 R&D Budget Contains Bright Spots Despite Fiscal Challenges, Holdren Says at AAAS

While the Obama administration’s overall R&D budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year is essentially flat compared to the previous year, it does contain bright spots for the nation’s science and technology enterprise, science adviser John P. Holdren said in a briefing at AAAS.

Overall, the budget proposal includes $147.7 billion for research and development, an increase of $343 million or just 0.2% above the 2010 level enacted by Congress. That is essentially the same amount Obama sought in 2010, when he proposed a total R&D budget of $147.6 billion.

However, basic science research, along with energy, health, and climate, are among the sectors that would receive expanded funding in the coming budget year. At the same time, the Obama administration would step away from a controversial moon-landing program and it would cut the Department of Homeland Security R&D program by 9% or $104 million.

John P. Holdren

John P. Holdren

While acknowledging that the plan required many tough decisions on R&D priorities, Holdren said Obama had “managed to preserve and expand” science and technology programs that the administration considers essential to promoting economic growth, protecting the environment, and setting the stage for a clean energy future.

“Embedded in a relatively flat overall R&D budget are some very healthy increases in areas that are most important for the nation’s future,” Holdren said in his 1 February briefing for journalists and stakeholders.

“The increases proposed for R&D are extremely gratifying, particularly given the freeze for overall domestic spending,” said Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science. “They deliver on the president’s commitments to advance science and apply it more vigorously to national and global goals. Having said that, given the overall commitment to keeping the budget constant, it will be very important for the nation to recognize the importance of science and to sustain these increases through the political process.”

Leshner added: “The 2011 R&D budget request continues a welcomed trend by returning the United States to a real-dollar funding increase for research: There was a real-dollar increase for research in 2009 versus 2008, but that was the only increase until this year, since a peak in 2004, and we are still down 4.4% from that peak in constant fiscal year 2010 dollars.”

The proposed 2011 budget includes a 5.6% increase overall for basic and applied research (to $61.6 billion in all) while it cuts the total development budget by 3.5% (to $81.5 billion). It proposes a substantial increase for non-defense R&D, which would rise by $3.7 billion, or 5.9% above the enacted level for 2010. Defense Department R&D, meanwhile, would be reduced 4.4% (to $77.5 billion), primarily through cuts in low-priority weapons development programs and congressional projects.

Holdren, a former president of AAAS, and other members of the administration’s science team unveiled the 2011 R&D budget in an 80-minute briefing for reporters and stakeholders in a packed AAAS auditorium. It comes on the heels of a State of the Union address on 27 January in which Obama acknowledged the need to control federal deficits and called for a spending freeze on non-defense discretionary spending beginning in 2011. Given concerns about the continuing economic malaise and about the risks of unprecedented deficit spending, the proposed budget will face close review in Congress.

Among the highlights of the Obama budget plan:

  • The spending plan maintains the path to a doubling by 2017 of budgets for three key science agencies: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology laboratories.
  • The proposed increase in NSF funding to $7.4 billion – an 8% increase – will expand efforts in climate and energy research and education, networking and information technology research, and research on environmental and economic sustainability. The 2011 budget also would sustain the administration’s effort to triple the number of new NSF Graduate Research Fellowships to 3000 by 2013.
  • The budget stops NASA’s Constellation program, which was begun under President George W. Bush as an effort to send American astronauts back to the moon by 2020. The administration proposes to spend $6 billion over the next five years to encourage private companies to build and operate their own spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
  • The budget for the National Institutes for Health would rise to $32.1 billion, up 3.2% from the 2010 budget approved by Congress and signed by Obama. The budget would focus on five strategic priorities: applying genomics and other high-throughput technologies; translating basic science discoveries into new and better treatments and diagnostics; using science to enable health care reform; global health; and reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community. (NIH also will continue to award and oversee $10.4 billion provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.)
  • The R&D budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would rise by 10%, or almost $1 billion. The budget for the multi-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program would rise 21%, to $2.6 billion overall. The funding reflects the administration’s concerns about climate change and the declining health of the world oceans. “This is the largest increase in NOAA’s science budget in over a decade,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (another former AAAS president) told the briefing.
  • The budget for the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s key competitive research program, the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative, would rise 63% to $429 million.
  • The budget proposes to spend $3.7 billion overall on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. About $1 billion—an increase of nearly 40%, according to Holdren—would go to K-12 programs to encourage interest in those fields.
Jane Lubchenco

Jane Lubchenco

The budget also proposes making the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent; provides $300 million for the Department of Energy’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E); gives $3.1 billion to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a 3.7% increase; and $679 million for R&D at the United States Geological Survey, a 2.9% increase.

In its budget documents, the Obama administration says that NASA’s Constellation program—on which more than $9 billion already has been spent to develop a crew capsule called Orion and rocket called Ares I —threatened other parts of NASA’s endeavors while “failing to achieve the trajectory of a program that was sustainable, executable and ultimately successful.”

The 2011 NASA R&D budget would increase by $1.7 billion—or 18.3%—above the 2010 funding level. The emphasis would be on technology development and testing to “reverse decades of under-investment in new aerospace ideas and re-engage our greatest minds,” the budget document says. A new heavy-lift and propulsion R&D program will be part of the administration’s effort to “re-baseline” the nation’s space exploration efforts.

“Simply put, we’re putting the ‘science’ back into rocket science,” Holdren said. The NASA budget also calls for a steady stream of new robotic missions to scout locations for future human missions.

The proposed changes at NASA are expected to draw intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

“The space agency’s budget request represents a radical departure from the bipartisan consensus achieved by Congress in successive authorizations over the past five years,” said U.S. Representative Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “This requires deliberate scrutiny.  We will need to hear the administration’s rationale for such a change and assess its impact on U.S. leadership in space before Congress renders its judgment on the proposals.”

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