At AAAS Forum, Experts Detail R&D Bounty—and Warn of Tough Budget Pressures Ahead

In the weeks since a new president and a new Congress took office, scientists and science advocates have been celebrating a change of fortunes: After years of flat budgets, there were new initiatives and new funding across disciplines and for science and math education, too. But on the first morning of the 2009 AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, budget experts warned that the good times may not last long.

If the financial stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama is effective at reversing the nation's recession, lawmakers could quickly come under pressure to trim unprecedented deficit spending. And, the speakers said, frustration with the economy may provoke a backlash against science.

"As soon as there's unambiguous evidence that the economy is growing again, the administration is going to turn on a dime," said Stanley Collender, managing director of the Washington, D.C., office of Qorvis Communications. Given Obama's pledge to trim the deficit to $500 billion by 2013, he added, "some ambitious deficit-reduction reduction" efforts could emerge by 2011.

To offset this swing of the pendulum, Collender and others urged science and engineering leaders to energize their efforts to communicate the value of science and build better ties with voters.

U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon

U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, the Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology, said he heard complaints at a recent meeting with constituents that the federal government was spending money on NASA at a time when cash-strapped local schools had to suspend bus service.

"What I try to explain is that spending money on R&D [research and development] really is jobs—it's our future," Gordon said. "It's about quality of life." He urged scientists and engineers to get politically active and communicate their work at the grassroots "because there are lots of competing needs and demands with a limited budget."

Nearly 600 leaders from U.S. and foreign governments, businesses, research centers and universities attended the opening day of the 34th annual AAAS Policy Forum, a two-day immersion in the issues and sometimes gritty political realities that dominate the nation's science and technology agenda. Meeting just blocks from the White House, the Forum is regarded as the largest and most important annual science and technology policy conference in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. It is organized by AAAS Science & Policy Programs.

The Forum opened with a keynote addressby John P. Holdren, the former AAAS president who now serves as Obama's science adviser. [See related story.] His talk was followed by a detailed exploration of the evolving fiscal picture for U.S. science.

Collender, who also serves as a contributing writer for Roll Call, said Obama had been elected with "an absolute mandate to fix the economy"—and "absolute permission to raise the deficit."

Peter C. Agre and Kent H. Hughes

FY 2009 R&D Appropriations (as of 2/09 excl. stimulus)

Source: AAAS estimates of R&D in the FY 2009 omnibus / continuing resolution.
Excludes supplemental (stimulus) appropriations in ARRA (P.L. 111-5).
DOD "S&T" = DOD R&D in "6.1" through "6.3" categories plus medical research.
FEB. '09 REVISED © 2009 AAAS
Open a larger version of this chart

The campaign to break the recession cycle has been "extraordinary," said Kent H. Hughes, director of the Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Interest rates have effectively been reduced to zero. Enormous loans have been guaranteed for struggling enterprises. And the government is effectively printing money to stimulate production and consumer spending.

With a net economic impact of $8 trillion to $10 trillion, Hughes said, "we're talking about numbers that are staggering in their totality."

Critics have charged that the deficit spending could pose significant risks, but Collender said the difference between last year's record $455 billion deficit under President George W. Bush and this year's projected $1.75 trillion deficit isn't as great as it appears.

He said Obama's budget staff made the budget more transparent by including costs for two wars, anticipated natural disasters, and Medicare payments to physicians—all of which were left out of Bush's deficit calculations. "If you do a real apples-to-apples comparison," he said, the deficit is "about $1.6 trillion [for Bush] and $1.75 trillion [for Obama]."

For science, the 2009 budget and the stimulus package has brought new commitment to address key science issues—and an infusion of new funds. Al Teich, a veteran S&T budget analyst who heads Science & Policy Programs for AAAS, detailed the budget windfalls in energy and climate, physical sciences, biomedical research, transportation, and other fields.

The total R&D budget for 2009, including the stimulus funding, is $172 billion—"a huge increase" over 2008 spending, Teich said. And much of it went to research outside the defense realm, which has dominated R&D in recent years.

Even without including stimulus funding, the budget for energy research at the Department of Energy (DoE) went up 21%, Teich said. Funding at the DoE Office of Science went up about 15%. When stimulus funding is included, budgets at the National Science Foundation, the DoE Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology all are on pace to double in the next seven to 10 years.

Al Teich

The commitment to R&D was underscored by Obama's pledge this week to raise U.S. R&D spending to 3% of gross domestic product—a higher rate than at any time since the space race of the mid-1960s.

That bodes well for efforts to renew the U.S. innovation enterprise, speakers said.

Gordon described his vision for ARPA-E—the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—as an initiative to turn some of the nation's top researchers loose to develop boldly new energy technology breakthroughs. ARPA-E received $400 million in funding this year.

As Gordon sees it, the agency will have a lean management structure. Holdren and other science leaders will decide on perhaps a half-dozen or more lines of research; they'll assemble hand-picked teams from national laboratories, universities, private enterprise, and other research centers. Then, he said, ARPA-E will "bring 'em together and crash on that idea."

The agency may be able to produce "transformational" breakthroughs, he said. "There's going to be things coming out of ARPA-E that we can't imagine now." But he acknowledged that in high-risk endeavors, a measure of failure is inevitable. "If there's not good progress, you pull the plug," he said. "Nobody's embarrassed. You go on to the next one."

But like Gordon, the other speakers voiced concern that financial and political support for S&T is far from solid.

Hughes was guarded in his assessment of the effect of stimulus spending on innovation. "If the recovery is successful, you can say it's like setting the stage," he said. "But it doesn't put on the play."

Teich, too, offered a tempered assessment. "There is no guarantee that spending will be provided at this level in the future," he said. "In fact, there is every reason to believe it will be difficult to sustain."

Stanley Collender

Collender's view was more bluntly pessimistic. "At some point in the next year, the phrase 'deficit reduction' is going to come back into vogue," he said. "This will have a material effect on what you [the science community] are expecting from the federal government."

Obama and Congress have options: They can let Bush's tax cuts expire, and they may save funds as the military action in Iraq winds down. But as pressure mounts to cut hundreds of billions more from the deficit, Collender said, R&D spending may be subject to intense pressure.

And, he warned, scientists and engineers may have limited political power to resist that because they have too long been aloof from the American people.

"One of the problems this community has is that you have allowed yourselves to become the poster boy for pork-barrel spending," Collender said. "This has to stop.... You guys do a great job of talking to yourselves. The question is: Can you talk to the outside community?"

When asked what scientists can do to reassure American taxpayers that their money is being well-spent, Collender replied: "There isn't anything they can do. It's too easy [for critics] to demagogue." Currently, he added, science funding is "seen as benefiting only the researcher." How to answer that? Improve relations with the public and lawmakers, he said, and work to build their understanding of what science does and contributes to the economy.


Gordon on Disbelievers: "At Home, I'd Say We Pray for 'Em"

In a question-and-answer session at the AAAS Forum on S& T Policy, U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) received a written request for advice: "How do we deal with, embrace, but ultimately convert those who do not believe in science, evolution, etc.?" Gordon, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, answered:

"Well, we've got some of those... on our Science Committee. At home, I'd say we pray for 'em. The good news is that that is a diminishing group.... There are a lot of folks that truly believe the earth is 2000 years old and there are lots of things of that nature.

"With climate change now, we just have to move forward. We need to respectful of them. But I have some bright, able people on the committee I've just, you know, given up on.

"I have one good friend there who will just not admit that climate warming is real. I think he knows it now, but what he's saying is that energy independence is important and so we have to work for alternative energies and things of this nature. So I think they're starting to get it, but I don't know what else we can do."