In a Tough Fiscal Climate, Coping Strategies Emerge

Amid continuing economic and political threats to fundamental research, seven foundations have launched an initiative to "renew and reinvigorate America's support of basic science." Robert Conn, president of The Kavli Foundation, introduced this Coalition of Foundations for Science at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, where several leaders struck bright notes amidst otherwise bleak trends for federally funded research.

The foundations' initiative could open new channels of support for U.S. basic research, which has increasingly come under attack as policy-makers struggle to narrow a projected $744 billion U.S. budget gap.

The new coalition plans to help focus nongovernment resources on "high risk/high reward" research, in complement with government programs. In contrast, federal agencies tend to be somewhat risk averse and favor projects with clear and tangible outcomes, despite downsides to such conservative funding. "If you're succeeding all the time, you're clearly not aiming high enough," said co-panelist Chris Mentzel, program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's Data-Driven Discovery/Science Program.

Initiatives like this are not big enough to compensate for declines in government funding for science, the speakers cautioned. Collectively, foundations in the United States contribute about $2 billion per year to basic science, 75 percent of which goes to medical and biological research, Conn noted. The federal government, in contrast, spent around $30 billion on basic research in 2011.

It’s elementary. John Holdren affirmed the White House's support for basic research. [Credit: AAAS]

The current pressures on federal research stood out in sharp relief on 2 to 3 May, at the 38th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. More than 400 people attended the forum, the premier venue for discussing issues at the intersection of science and technology with public policy. Throughout the meeting S&T leaders revealed they are thinking seriously about how to cope with the new conditions.

Creative approaches have become necessary since spending cuts forced by the Budget Control Act, also known as sequestration, drove federal R&D spending for fiscal year 2013 down to 0.8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP)—the lowest level seen in 40 years. If sequestration continues, federal R&D as a share of GDP would likely drop below that 0.8 percent mark, according to Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

Basic science, including research in the social and behavioral sciences, is particularly vulnerable as Congress seeks ways to maximize the impact of limited federal resources. Lawmakers have introduced proposals that would constrain the peer-review process by which the National Science Foundation (NSF) evaluates certain funding proposals. In March, a Senate amendment was passed as part of the bill to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, prohibiting NSF from awarding grants to political science studies unless the director can "certify" that they "promote national security or the economic interests of the United States." Since then, there has been a hearing and additional discussion over a draft bill in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to extend that same policy to all NSF grants.

Because basic research seeks solely to expand knowledge without special considerations for practical applications, these restrictions "would throw the basic research baby out with the bathwater," said presidential science adviser John Holdren, who criticized these developments in his keynote address. Leaders at agencies that fund both basic and "use-inspired" research are also finding ways to make their dollars stretch farther.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) each described new funding strategies aimed at solving problems efficiently by bringing researchers together across institutions or lowering barriers between academic research and commercial applications.

Kathy Hudson, deputy director for science, outreach, and policy at NIH, described with enthusiasm two new efforts: the recently announced BRAIN initiative for neuroscience, which NIH is a major partner in, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), established in 2011.

A notable success at NCATS has been an effort to shorten the drug-development pipeline, by coordinating with eight pharmaceutical companies to select 58 drug candidates that had passed safety tests in humans but were then abandoned. Via crowdsourcing, NIH scientists identified promising new uses for these compounds more quickly than conventional drug testing would have.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also increasingly recognizing the bottom line, according to the agency's director, Arati Prabhakar. "We in the leading-edge technology community have tended to treat cost for military systems as something that's someone else's problem...And now I think we are going to be critically dependent on innovation that doesn't tweak at cost but starts flipping the cost equation," she said.

While creative new funding opportunities represent bright spots, it was clear the budget cuts will be deeply felt. Hudson summed up NIH's efforts by quoting Winston Churchill, who said "If you're going through hell, keep going."