U.S. Science: Bold Initiatives, with a Wary Eye on the Budget

With medical researchers making dramatic new advances, Margaret Hamburg is leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in developing a robust field of regulatory science to help bring new drugs and therapies more quickly to patients. In an address at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, she described the FDA’s effort as crucial to public health and a healthy economy.


Margaret Hamburg and Douglas W. Elmendorf

Her talk was resolutely optimistic—except for a sobering note near the end. “I have no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve all of our goals in regulatory science,” Hamburg said. “These are difficult times—as a nation we face staggering budget constraints and an array of compelling yet competing priorities for attention and resources.”

It was a telling moment. Throughout the 35th annual Forum, public officials, educators, and other science leaders described ambitious initiatives now under way to address global challenges and drive a new generation of economic growth. But a recurring question was whether a weak economy and historic federal deficits will undermine the efforts.

The Forum, held 13 to 14 May in Washington, D.C., attracted over 500 U.S. and foreign participants from government, education, and business. They heard policy leaders talk on a range of critical issues, including energy, national security, the impact of science on society, and U.S.-European science cooperation.

White House science adviser John P. Holdren, in an address that opened the conference, offered a detailed look at President Obama’s science-related initiatives. Holdren said that Obama sees science and technology as critical to addressing many of the defining issues of our era—the economy, national security, energy and climate, health, and education.

The fiscal stimulus package directed more than $100 billion into science-related projects, Holdren said. And the administration is proceeding with efforts to double the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But the economy is already taking a toll in some sectors, and the pressures could intensify in coming years, speakers said.

In the world-renowned University of California system, state support has been cut by 50% in the past 25 years, and by more than 20% in the past year alone, said Linda Katehi, chancellor of the university’s campus at Davis. Diminished support, she said, jeopardizes “the ability of the state to sustain the public research university, and to sustain the mission of educating citizens and sustaining democracy.”

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas W. Elmendorf offered a gloomy assessment of the long-term federal fiscal picture. For the 2011 budget year, Obama has proposed a $3.8 trillion budget, with a deficit estimated at nearly $1.3 trillion. And without a significant change in taxes or spending—or a combination of those—deep deficits will continue for a decade and beyond.

“The gap is so large as to be unsustainable,” Elmendorf told the Forum. “The longer it persists, the more drag it creates on people’s income and the greater the risk it creates of a government-centered financial crisis.”

Patrick J. Clemins, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said the 2011 budget proposed by the White House shows a clear near-term strategy Obama has proposed a slight decrease in funds for research and development, part of his commitment to a 3-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. But within the R&D investment portfolio, Clemins said, the White House is increasing funds for priority programs and cutting funds elsewhere.

Hamburg said that the FDA has received new support under Obama. Still, she suggested that policy leaders will be challenged by a future climate that features both promising opportunity and fiscal austerity.

“We live in a time when science and technology are changing our world in dramatic ways,” she said. “And with that comes a fundamental question—how do we make sure that we fully translate the potential and promise of that research into real-world products and programs that really matter?”