Science and Technology Funding Under Obama: A Look Back

More often than not, the Administration's efforts to invest in science fell victim to broader fiscal fights.

Eight years ago President Obama came into office amid high hopes from the science and technology community, following the controversies of the Bush years. In his inaugural address, the President pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and he received a standing ovation during an early speech before National Academy of Science in which he said, “The days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.” Such statements continued throughout the Obama years, and the President’s personal enthusiasm for science and technology has been widely noted. This rhetoric was accompanied by generally well-regarded appointees and a raft of concrete policy proposals, large and small.

A full review of the Obama science policy legacy would have to cover many things, including scientific integrity, open data, STEM education, the creation of high-level positions like the Chief Technology Officer, and an embrace of climate science and the R&D tax credit. Many of these activities have received positive reviews from observers. But on the funding front, perhaps the best word to describe the Obama Administration’s impact is “muted.”

The President himself set a high bar for science funding when he at various times pledged to double basic research, physical science, and cancer research funding on the campaign trail. The new Administration pursued funding action on science almost immediately through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided a huge one-time boost for R&D in fiscal year (FY) 2009. But as can be seen in Figure 1, following the Recovery Act and some early growth in regular appropriations,[1] most major science agencies spent most of their time below pre-Obama funding levels.[2] Needless to say, the doubling pledges were all eventually dropped.

These budget troubles reflect the reality that it’s Congress who controls the purse strings, not the White House. A president must therefore find a way to bring Congress along on funding priorities, and in the aggregate the Obama Administration was generally unable to do that. In some instances – like renewable energy technology and climate science – there were clear and substantial partisan differences. In others, like for the BRAIN Initiative, Congress found support amid a tight fiscal climate. But the broader, more fundamental story is that the discretionary budget has taken a beating: Congress spent most of the President’s time in office cutting, capping, or sequestering discretionary spending. Between FY 2010 and FY 2016, according to AAAS estimates, the base discretionary budget (excluding war funding and other emergencies) dropped by over ten percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. These actions – largely a product of the Tea Party backlash in the 2010 midterm elections – had major ripple effects on science and innovation agencies, given that most science agency budgets are discretionary and move in unison with the overall discretionary budget. Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, some of the most acute challenges occurred between FY 2010 and FY 2013, when the long-term spending cuts under sequestration were put it place.

Given these circumstances, even as the Obama Administration attempted to prioritize science and innovation funding – to a reasonable extent and within the context of their broader macroeconomic plans – the realistic fiscal ceiling was always going to be limited.

The “Average” Obama R&D Budget

What did the typical Obama request look like? There is surely no “typical” year, and presidential budgets have to be responsive to real-world developments, but preferences did emerge over time. Figure 2 shows “average” proposed year-over-year changes to the federal R&D budget by major spending category in the eight Obama-submitted budgets (FY 2010 through FY 2017), based mostly on historical estimates compiled by AAAS, alongside the same data for President Bush (FY 2001 through FY 2009) for comparison.

As can be seen, the Obama Administration generally sought moderate increases for R&D above the rate of inflation (which was less than two percent over these eight years), particularly for basic research and nondefense R&D. The latter includes all science funders except the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In some years the proposed increases were more modest, while in others they were quite large – particularly in those few years when the Administration proposed jettisoning the sequestration caps. Given the Administration’s rhetoric, one must wonder if a friendlier fiscal environment in Congress would have meant more robust proposals, though it will have to remain a point of speculation.

Interestingly, the average proposed increase to total R&D was similar for both the Bush and Obama administrations, though with different emphases on defense R&D versus nondefense R&D, and on research versus development.[3] This shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the Republican preference for development-heavy defense spending; the ramp-up of defense spending under Bush following the September 11 attacks and subsequent wind-down under Obama; and partisan differences over certain forms of applied research, which some Republicans believe is better left to the private sector. Basic research tends to be a bit more bipartisan – as exhibited by President Bush’s support of America COMPETES and its ambitious basic research funding aims.

Priorities, Preferences, and Progress

Any review of Obama R&D spending priorities must start with low-carbon energy technology, particularly efficiency and renewables, and grid research. Indeed, among the many areas of R&D which found Administration support, clean energy technology was clearly the number one priority, in terms of relative proposed increases (Figure 3 above). In many years the Obama Administration sought enormous increases for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and they largely failed to obtain them (Figure 4). The prioritization of energy also surfaced in National Science Foundation programs and Department of Defense activities. On the fundamental science side, the Office of Science fared somewhat better (as seen in Figure 1 above), owing to greater bipartisan agreement on basic research. The Administration was also able to secure some funding, albeit more slowly than they would have liked, for an array of new innovation models: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Energy Frontier Research Centers, and the Energy Innovation Hubs. Early reviews of these activities have been fairly positive.

Climate research was also a priority, with mixed funding results. Major sources of federal climate research dollars include NASA’s Earth Science program, NSF’s Geosciences directorate, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s climate research programs, among others. In spite of partisan controversy, NASA Earth Science is nearly 40 percent larger now than in FY 2009, the fastest growth of any NASA science division. But both the NSF and NOAA programs have been targeted for Congressional reductions of late. In particular, NOAA’s climate research program remains well below FY 2009 levels (Figure 5). Other programs that have struggled to obtain their requested funding include the DOE Office of Science’s climate research activities and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Like low-carbon energy, the Administration has also placed major funding emphasis on advanced manufacturing, particularly through their multi-agency initiative to establish a national network of 45 manufacturing innovation institutes with industry. The program has been the subject of a recurring $2 billion request, but while Congress has authorized the network, they have not provided anywhere near full funding. The Administration has managed to cobble together sufficient funding to establish several of these institutes under the auspices of the departments of Defense and Energy. The Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) haven’t had the same luck, and the Administration only achieved a fraction of what it sought.

The Obama Administration’s biomedical R&D funding efforts represent something of a glass half full/glass half empty situation. On the one hand, the Administration’s flagship NIH initiatives – including translational science, the BRAIN Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative, and others – have generally met with Congressional approval, even if they haven’t always been universally beloved by the research community. On the other hand, overall NIH funding, like other areas, has often fallen well short of what have been fairly generous requests (Figure 6). As a result, the NIH success rate remains below 20 percent, well below historical norms.

While Department of Agriculture (USDA) R&D hasn’t seen much growth (as seen in Figure 1), one component of the department’s research enterprise has been both prioritized by the Administration and robustly funded by Congress: the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). While not quite matching the Administration’s full financial ambitions for the program, AFRI has nevertheless seen more than 50 percent budget growth since FY 2009. Outside of AFRI, however, USDA R&D has been stagnant.

As can be seen in Figure 3 above, space R&D funding was not a major relative priority for the Obama Administration, earth science notwithstanding. The Administration’s space exploration plans got off to a controversial start with the Augustine Commission and the decision to end the Constellation program and refocus on robotic science missions. That decision was followed by regular Congressional battles over next-generation space flight capabilities, the asteroid redirect mission, and industrial collaboration. In the end, NASA funding didn’t fare much better or worse than other science agencies.

Intractable Problems

As mentioned above, science and technology funding in the Obama years ultimately fell victim to broader Congressional efforts to shrink federal spending and deficits. These efforts, in turn, were fueled by the backlash against the growing perception of profligacy, inequity, and ineffectiveness of the Recovery Act and the divisive establishment of the Affordable Care Act, among other things. While mandatory spending – mostly entitlements and mostly on autopilot – remains the largest driver of federal spending and a cause for ongoing fiscal concern, the relative political strength and prominence of mandatory programs made discretionary spending the easier target when it came time to cut. The 2010 Republican takeover of the House was followed first by a round of cuts and then by the Budget Control Act, which locked in sequestration in FY 2013 and discretionary spending caps for a decade. While Congress has regularly mitigated these spending caps, it still meant hundreds of billions less in the discretionary budget compared to earlier projections, and therefore significantly less available for science and innovation investments.[4]

In the wake of conflicts over revenues and spending, shutdowns and fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings and deficits, one is left to wonder if there was anything the Administration could have done differently to better protect the discretionary budget while providing leadership on deficit issues.

Early on, the President did state his intention to seek some level of entitlement reform and tackle long-term fiscal sustainability. If the President had continued to emphasize problem-solving on this front, might it have yielded an alternate path forward that was less damaging to the discretionary budget and more amenable to Republicans? Perhaps; yet it’s very difficult indeed to imagine the President achieving much by walking such a path while simultaneously defending both the Recovery Act and health reform, which were top-tier goals for his Administration from the very beginning and therefore nonnegotiable, potential backlash notwithstanding. The Democratic coalition that sent Obama to the oval office did so to achieve these things, or at least try, not to dial them back for other lower-priority goals like the discretionary budget, where science happens to live.

Perhaps the bottom line, then, is that while the Obama Administration did what it could – at times generously so – on science and innovation funding, such investments and others in the discretionary budget have been secondary to the bigger fights that truly define our fiscal politics, over healthcare, retirement, deficits and debt, levels of taxation, and so on (and it can’t be underestimated how truly intractable these challenges really are, as indicated by the labyrinthine wrangling and ultimate failure of the President’s Bowles-Simpson deficit commission). The changing composition of the federal budget from discretionary to mandatory outlays bears this out. Observe, for instance, that while discretionary spending was declining from 38.1 percent to 30.9 percent of the federal budget in the Obama years, mandatory spending grew from 53.5 percent to 62.9 percent, according to White House Office of Management and Budget data. Also observe the long-term trajectories proposed for discretionary spending overall and R&D-related spending in particular, as compared against projected mandatory spending, in the final four Obama budgets (Figure 7).

So long as science and technology investments are hitched to a discretionary budget that plays second fiddle, then funding expectations should likely be tempered until a more transformative moment arrives. Short of that, the best one might expect of an administration and president is to promote, highlight, and prioritize science and technology as best as they can within the box in which those investments must live – just as Obama did.


[1] Ironically, President Obama is ending as he started: under a continuing resolution. The first appropriations omnibus he signed, for FY 2009, had been punted from the prior year.

[2] The two big exceptions – the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science in the Energy Department – had been tabbed for budget doubling under the America COMPETES initiative in the Bush years, and thus benefited from somewhat stronger Congressional appropriations early on.

[3]  A caveat to this is that both presidents regularly sought to cut defense science and technology activities, a subset of Department of Defense R&D that covers basic research and early-stage technology.