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AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner Urges Congress to Increase Overall Science Spending
Federal science spending would decrease for the fourth year in a row under the 2008 budget proposed by the White House, further dwindling the "vital feedstock for innovation in the U.S. economy," AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on 28 February.
Defense programs, space missions and three key physical science agencies account for the lion's share of the budget's proposed 1.4% increase (to $143 billion) in federal research and development funding, Leshner testified before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.
The three agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science—have been singled out as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, introduced by U.S. President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. But according to a new report by AAAS's R&D Budget and Policy Program, most of the budget's R&D spending goes toward the development of weapon systems and spacecraft. Even the budget bumps for ACI agencies would not be enough to keep the federal investment in basic and applied research from falling by 2% in 2008, the report concludes.
While welcoming the commitment to R&D contained in the ACI proposals, "we believe that a successful, innovative future depends on robust support for all scientific fields and all scientific fields need to rise together," said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. "We are frankly concerned that while scientific research has been highlighted by many policymakers for its contributions to the future of the nation, overall science funding is actually on the decline."
Under the proposed budget, federal research funding in inflation-adjusted dollars would fall to 7.4% below the 2004 funding level in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the AAAS report prepared by R&D Budget and Policy Program Director Kei Koizumi. Federal research investment as a share of the U.S. economy is in a "free fall," Koizumi and colleagues write, concluding that "the downward slide in federal support of research is unlikely to reverse" without a dramatic increase in U.S. domestic spending.
In his testimony, Leshner cited numbers showing that close to $1.8 billion of research proposals that NSF reviewers rated as very good to excellent were declined, "and as a result, many great ideas go unfunded each year."
The budget cuts for most agencies mean that critical scientific and societal concerns such as climate change and competition in the global economy are being shortchanged just when investment in these issues is needed most, Leshner warned the subcommittee.
Notably, further budget cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's earth sciences programs would lead to a 25% decrease in the federal government's entire climate change research portfolio since 2004, according to the AAAS report. The cuts, along with the overall shrinking budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have especially taken a toll on environmental satellites and other instruments that track global climate change.
At the same time, "federal research investments are shrinking as a share of the U.S. economy, just as other nations are increasing their investments," Leshner noted. "China and South Korea, for example, are boosting government research support by 10% or more annually."
Armed with a set of slides showing trends in R&D spending throughout the federal agencies, Leshner praised the funding increases for physical science in President Bush's budget. But he also said the narrow focus ignores "the increasing interdependence" of research.
For instance, NSF will take the U.S. lead in the upcoming International Polar Year , a broad scientific study of the rapidly-changing Arctic and Antarctic regions, which Leshner likened to the "canaries in the coal mine of climate." But NSF's "ability to do the superb work it will do is heavily dependent on the participation of other U.S. agencies," he noted.
Several subcommittee members questioned proposed NASA funding increases for human spacecraft development and the International Space Station at the expense of its basic science programs. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), called it "robbing Dr. Peter to award grants to Dr. Paul," while Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), asked Leshner "if it is fair to say NASA's been cannibalizing its own seed corn."
In response, Leshner acknowledged that the NASA situation could be a case of "draining one pond to fill another," a budgeting principle that he said "can operate against long-term progress."
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chair of the House subcommittee, commenting on the recently released AAAS Board statement on global climate change, asked Leshner if "we have done too little in the U.S. to address global climate change."
"Yes," Leshner answered simply. He stressed the need to reverse the current slide in climate change research funding, saying that "a continuing decline is, I believe, a path to disaster."
Schiff asked Leshner to comment on the "astonishing percentage...of scientists employed by the federal government personally experiencing or perceiving political pressure" related to the their climate change research.
"The purpose of science is to tell us about the nature of the natural world, whether we like the answer or not," Leshner answered. "Whether it's political interference or ideological pressure on science, any time there is a violation of the integrity of science...I believe it's a great disservice to society."
Leshner testified along with Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corp. Augustine spoke on the need for better science education at all ages and the critical cooperation between federal research agencies and private industry.
2 March 2007