New Online Tool Makes AAAS R&D Analyses More Transparent

Federal expenditures for mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and non-research and development spending by the Defense Department account for the bulk of the federal government’s outlays, while research and development spending represents far less. | Matthew Hourihan/AAAS

A new interactive online tool, launched today by AAAS, makes it easier to spot U.S. federal funding trends such as the continuing rise in mandatory spending for programs such as Social Security with spending levels set by law, a shift which has left a smaller percentage of the overall federal budget for science and other so-called “discretionary” expenses.

Since 1976, the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program has gathered and compiled publicly available data based on federal agency reports that must be sent each year to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to detail federal research and development expenditures. Authoritative, objective AAAS analyses of the OMB data helps to inform policy decisions related to federal spending.

The new online R&D “dashboard” was designed to enhance the transparency, accessibility, and usefulness of historical AAAS data to benefit policymakers and analysts as well as the public, Program Director Matt Hourihan said.

“The AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program serves as a resource on federal science and technology funding trends for policymakers and the broader S&T community,” Hourihan explained. “People have wanted an easier way to handle and interact with the data, and there’s always a need to educate the public on the shape and contours of the federal science budget – not only to inform policy, but also to address misconceptions about where our tax dollars are going.”

One misconception, Hourihan said, is the erroneous belief that sequestration – across-the-board cuts to federal agencies first enacted in 2013 – started the recent slowdown in science funding. In reality, research funding peaked and began to stagnate in FY 2004, well before sequestration took effect. That followed a long period of more-or-less steady increases. In constant dollars, federal R&D spending went from slightly less than $20 billion in fiscal year 1976 (October 1 – September 30), to more than $145 billion estimated for 2016. 

If science investments are tallied as a share of the nation’s overall economy, however, “it’s more of a mixed bag,” Hourihan said.

For example, as a share of the nation’s economy, or gross domestic product (GDP), funding for R&D by the National Institutes of Health has increased from 0.13% in 1976 to 0.77% this year. By comparison, though, support for U.S. Department of Agriculture R&D has declined from 0.03% to 0.01% during the same time period.  Even at the Department of Defense, science investments as a share of the economy have declined from 0.56% in 1976 to 0.39% now. (Overall, R&D spending represented 2.37% of the nation’s economy in 2014, versus 2.14% in 2000, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

The online R&D dashboard features three interactive tabs. One tab allows users to view R&D spending by key science-related federal agencies, in total dollars, since 1976. Another tab puts those science investments into context for the same time period, showing R&D spending as a percentage of the overall federal budget as well as the nation’s economy. A third tab, featuring data from 1962 through the present, paints a vivid picture of the overall federal budget.

Looking at a color-coded graph of all spending categories in the overall federal budget makes clear one trend with major implications for R&D funding: A massive green chunk of the chart, representing ”mandatory spending” – primarily through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – has grown from being 26.1% of the overall federal budget in 1962, to 62.9% now. In contrast, the combined value of all non-mandatory (discretionary) spending – a category that includes R&D – has declined as a percentage of the overall federal budget.

In addition to the new online tool, the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program tracks federal R&D appropriations on a weekly basis, and it issues reports comparing the budget recommendations of the president, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Senate. Those analyses will continue to be posted to the program’s website for now, although Hourihan would like to expand the interactive dashboard, as feasible, in the future.

“The hope is that this new tool makes it a little bit easier for people to understand the federal science budget and to know where their tax dollars are going,” he said.