Science Leaders Ask Congressional Deficit Committee to Spare Critical R&D Investments

As a select congressional committee prepares its final recommendations on lowering the U.S. deficit, nearly 70 scientific and engineering societies and universities have urged the group to preserve R&D spending “as an area of U.S. investment too critical to be cut.”

In a letter to the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, AAAS and other leading scientific organizations said drastic cuts to research “would inhibit immediate scientific progress and threaten our international competitiveness long into the future.

“As representatives of U.S. science, engineering, and higher education organizations,” the letter says, “we urge you to strongly support the federal research budget and its mission to advance a balanced portfolio of scientific and technological discovery and innovation that has fueled American economic growth and rising standards of living for decades.

“Science and discovery are important aspects of the American national character. American ingenuity is still the best reason for long-term optimism about the U.S. economy and the well-being of its people. An effective path out of the current difficulties should include investments in R&D. They can fuel our future growth and prosperity.”

The 12-member panel was created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, an outgrowth of negotiations earlier this year to increase the U.S. debt limit. The bipartisan committee has until 23 November to draft a plan that would reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade; that plan would be subject to a congressional vote by 23 December 2011.

If no agreement is reached and approved by Congress by 15 January 2012, the law imposes a $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending cut split between defense and non-defense spending. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in September that, without an agreement, defense spending would be cut by 10% in the 2013 budget year, with cuts of 7.8% that year for non-defense discretionary programs. The CBO estimates that if automatic procedures to cut spending are triggered, funding for defense would decrease a total of $110 billion (or 16%) by 2021 and nondefense spending would fall $99 billion (15%). Medicare and other programs also would be subject to mandatory reductions.

“While we sympathize with the enormous task of reducing the federal deficit, we hope that the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will understand that cutting the federal research and development budget will ultimately result in an investment deficit and curtail our ability to innovate,” said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations.

The letter sent to the deficit committee co-chairs, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) and U.S. Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), on 31 October includes several examples of how federal investment in research and development produces economic growth and other public benefits. The National Science Foundation’s efforts to sequence the genome of the wheat stem rust fungus, for example, could protect North American wheat against a disease that has threatened crops in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy has led to new materials for electric vehicle technologies such as the lithium-ion battery. Sequencing of the human genome, supported by the National Institutes of Health, is yielding new treatments on immune disorders, birth defects, kidney disease, and a host of other conditions.

A diverse group of professional organizations and academic institutions joined AAAS on the letter, including the Association of American Universities, the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Physical Society, Research!America, the Soil Science Society of America, and Vanderbilt University.

The deficit committee has thus far made no detailed statement about its proposed plan to reduce the federal deficit. But news reports have suggested deep divisions over possible tax and revenue increases and cuts in entitlement programs. Patrick Clemins, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said that if the committee fails to agree on a compromise plan, Congress could vote to change the terms that require across-the-board spending cuts for the 2013 budget year.

Meanwhile, Clemins said, Congress is working on a budget conflict with more immediate implications. Both the House and Senate are progressing with spending plans for the 2012 fiscal year, which began 1 October. Both chambers have broadly cut initiatives and funding from the 2012 budget proposed by the administration of President Barack Obama.

But according to Clemins’ recent analysis, the House and Senate are far apart on a range of issues:

  • The House would cut the Pentagon’s $78 billion 2011 R&D spending by 2.6%; the Senate would cut it by 5.1%;
  • The House would cut R&D at the Department of Homeland Security by 27.3% in 2012; the Senate would increase it by 20.5%;
  • The House would cut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration R&D by 21.5%; the Senate would increase it by 11.1%;
  • The House would cut the Department of Energy’s R&D investment in energy programs by 8%; the Senate would increase the funding by 2.8%;
  • The House would cut NASA by 14.3% from 2011 levels; the Senate would cut the space program by 6%.

Differences in fiscal year 2012 appropriations by the two chambers will be sent to a joint conference committee for negotiation.

Read the full letter to the Deficit Committee from AAAS and nearly 70 other scientific and engineering societies and universities.

View a chart that depicts House-Senate differences over 2012 appropriations, prepared by the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.