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In Congressional Testimony, Leshner Says Outlook for Federal R&D is Mixed
While applauding the Bush administration's continued effort to boost funding for the physical sciences, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told Congress that overall investment in basic and applied research would decline in constant dollar terms for the fifth year in a row under its proposed 2009 federal budget.
"AAAS believes strongly in the importance of a broad, balanced portfolio of R&D investments," Leshner said in written testimony submitted for the record to the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Innovation. The panel held an 11 March hearing on the importance of basic research to U.S. competitiveness.
With the increasing interdependence of engineering, physical, biological, behavioral and social sciences, Leshner wrote, there is a need for strong support across all scientific fields as a way to nurture economic growth and help improve the health and quality of life of all Americans. He noted in particular the role of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) as a bridge to unite many fields of inquiry.
"We are pleased by the continued emphasis on investing in basic physical science research," Leshner wrote regarding the administration's budget request. It includes substantial increases for three physical sciences agencies—NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Energy's Office of Science—that are part of the administration's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI).
The budget also includes gains for development programs at NASA, the Pentagon and the Department of Energy. But those increases would be partly offset by flat funding for biomedical research and cuts to key environmental and agricultural R&D agencies, said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science.
While federal investment in all fields of R&D would increase $4.9 billion, or 3.5%, to $147.4 billion in the FY 2009, Leshner noted that the increase is driven primarily by development funding for defense weapons and NASA spacecraft. The investment in basic and applied research would fall 0.3% to $57.3 billion. If accepted by Congress, that would mean a drop of 9% in basic and applied research spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) between 2004 and 2009, Leshner said.
"The ACI and the America COMPETES Act have done much to recognize that the U.S. economy, now and in the future, will depend on our ability to innovate," Leshner wrote, and an innovative future rests on a strong foundation of federal investment in research and education. But, he said, the overall federal research investment continues to shrink as a share of the U.S. economy even as nations such as China and South Korea boost government-funded research by 10% or more annually.
The president's FY 2009 budget proposal follows on a very disappointing final omnibus spending bill for FY 2008, Leshner said. The NSF—originally slated for a doubling of its budget between 2006 and 2016 as one of the ACI agencies—received $364 million less than the president's budget request. As a result, NSF will award 1,000 fewer new research grants and 230 fewer graduate research fellowships this fiscal year.
The administration has requested a 13.6% increase for NSF in the FY 2009 budget, which would offer some redress. Increases for three key physical sciences directorates would approach 20%. "Overall, AAAS is very pleased with the proposed increase for NSF's programs in FY 2009," Leshner wrote. He urged Congress to ensure, however, that NSF's programs in the biological, behavioral and social sciences receive attention comparable to the physical sciences.
NSF's education and human resources programs would gain 9%, for example, as would the program in social, behavioral and economic sciences. Biological sciences would get a 10% boost. While such increases are still substantial, Leshner wrote, "We hope that the differential between them and those for the physical sciences does not reflect a misunderstanding of the critical importance of biological, behavioral and social sciences and of science education to the nation's innovativeness and the future of America's children."
And, he added: "AAAS would like to emphasize that NSF is unique among all the R&D agencies in that its purpose is to support fundamental research across all scientific fields—not only the physical sciences—illustrating the interdependence of physical, biological, behavioral and social sciences."
Leshner welcomed the administration's continued commitment to intramural laboratory research programs at NIST (a proposed 16% increase to $447 million) but noted that it again proposes to dramatically reduce funding for NIST's external programs, including elimination of the Technology Innovation Program.
And while NASA's budget would grow to $17.6 billion as it continues construction of the International Space Station and development of a next-generation spacecraft to replace the space shuttle, the agency's science portfolio would fall 5.6%, Leshner said, with particularly steep cuts in astrophysics and solar physics. "Over the last several years, the NASA support of research (the "R" part of R&D) has declined dramatically," Leshner wrote. "The 2009 budget would continue this disturbing trend."
11 March 2008