With R&D Budgets Squeezed, a Plea for Investing in the Future

With federal research budgets losing ground to both inflation and a squeeze on discretionary spending, a veteran lawmaker appealed for Congress to reverse the trend for the benefit of future generations. "For their sake, we should be investing," Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said at a 4 April AAAS briefing on Capitol Hill.

"The word 'invest' has been banished from the political vocabulary here on the Hill," said Holt, a physicist and co-chair of the Congressional Research & Development Caucus, which hosted the briefing. "When we think we are short of dollars," Holt said, "is exactly the time when we should be investing so we will have better times in the future."

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) | AAAS/ Earl Lane

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, said the recent trend in federal support for science "is nothing short of seriously depressing." Federal R&D overall has declined 15% in real dollars since 2010, he noted. While acknowledging the need for balanced cuts in spending in tight fiscal times, including a look at mandatory entitlement programs, Leshner said that "sadly, most of the solutions seem to be offered up on the discretionary side of the budget."

Federal R&D spending has declined more rapidly than the overall discretionary budget during the past five years, said Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. But in the public luncheon briefing on the White House's R&D request for the 2015 fiscal year, Hourihan did note that non-defense R&D has fared somewhat better recently than defense R&D due to steeper reductions in defense spending under the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration that went into effect in 2013. Defense cuts as part of the normal appropriations process also have had an impact, he said.

Still, even non-defense R&D is down at least 3% in the current fiscal year compared to its inflation-adjusted peak in 2010, Hourihan said. And except for R&D spending in the Commerce Department, which includes the National Institute of Standards and Technology, most major science agencies saw their R&D budgets decline in real dollars between 2010 and 2014. The general sciences budget account (which includes the National Science Foundation) was down 3.7%, and the health account (which includes the National Institutes of Health) was down 6.2%, Hourihan said.

Alan I. Leshner | AAAS/ Earl Lane

President Barack Obama's proposed R&D budget for 2015 is $136.5 billion, a 0.6% increase above 2014. But that does not match the 1.7% rate of inflation. The proposal is constrained by the spending caps enacted as part of a hard-fought budget compromise hammered out last December by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

The Obama budget does request a supplemental $5.3 billion in R&D spending for an Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative (OSGI). That would help many non-defense science agencies to keep ahead of inflation, and some would do much better. The initiative would include $552 million for the National Science Foundation, bringing its funding to 7% above the 2014 level. The National Institutes of Health would get $970 million, bringing it from a 1% cut to a 2% gain compared to 2014, adjusted for inflation. But the prospects for the supplemental OSGI funding are uncertain, at best. Hourihan said appropriators have shown little interest so far in considering the proposal.

 
The president's proposed FY 2015 R&D budget leaves many science agencies with stagnant funding . | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Overall, the President's 2015 R&D request amounts to about 11.1% of all federal discretionary spending, which is near the 30-year historical average. But Hourihan notes that discretionary spending continues to decline as a share of the total federal budget. Under the Obama proposal, it would drop to 30.4% of total outlays in 2015 and is projected to fall to 24.6% by 2019. As a result of the shrinking discretionary piece of the budget pie, R&D outlays in 2015 would account for just 3.4% of the total budget—the lowest it has been in more than half a century.

Despite the budget constraints, Obama does single out some priority research areas for special attention, Hourihan said. These include: research on renewable energy and energy efficiency, neuroscience, NASA-industry partnerships, highway-related R&D, extramural research funded by the Department of Agriculture, and advanced manufacturing programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy.

Congress may tinker with those priorities, of course, and Hourihan said renewable energy is likely to be one area of contention. But he adds, "I actually think the President's overall request this year is not too far from where we're going to end up" when the final budget numbers are set. Hourihan said Obama's request is "basically an unambitious budget that seeks to tread water." (More details on the president's request are available at the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program website.)

Matt Hourihan | AAAS/ Earl Lane

Research spending would be even tighter under a House-passed budget authored by budget committee chairman Ryan. His measure would reduce discretionary spending by more than $300 billion below the current sequestration baseline through 2024, according to Hourihan. That would be about $680 billion below the President's current budget request, and would bring deeper cuts in nondefense R&D. (For a fuller analysis see Hourihan's report on the House measure.)

The AAAS presentation on the pending R&D budget is an annual event done in conjunction with the Congressional R&D Caucus. The Caucus provides a primary point of contact for R&D advocacy groups and serves as an educational forum for a wide range of issues of interest to the research and business communities. According to a statement by the Caucus, it does not advocate for increasing funding levels for federal programs, but instead provides a platform for members and staff to learn more about the various benefits of investment in research and development, including economic, educational and innovative benefits.

In addition to Rep. Holt, the other co-chair of the caucus is Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). Both have announced that they are not seeking re-election to Congress this fall. Holt has served eight terms and Wolf seventeen.