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The Science Crunch

Our Economic Present Spells Trouble for an Innovative Future

Jagged stock price line over science lab beakers SOURCE: Huff, SP How will unprecedented budget deficits affect the funding of American science? The answer: No one is entirely sure, but they can’t be good.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is author of two previous books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs at The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum. (Photo:

Scientists—especially those reliant upon federal research dollars—are pretty worried right now. They’ve watched the government prepare an unprecedented and vastly expensive bailout of the financial industry, and the presidential candidates are currently debating who will do more to cut back spending upon taking office. We need scientific innovation now more than ever to fuel the nation’s economic future—to discover the new products, new energy sources, and new communication technologies that will help us retain our status as world leader and prepare us for the remainder of the century. And yet our economic present is so bad that it’s doubtful we can make much of an investment in that future any time soon.

The funding situation for science was, in fact, already troubling long before the recent financial crackup, as several speakers related in Minneapolis earlier this week at the Innovation2008 conference (hosted by ScienceDebate2008 and the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, and others). After heeding the concerns of the science community about risks to our competitiveness posed by surging nations like India and China—and passing, in August of 2007, the America COMPETES Act by a strong bipartisan majority—Congress failed to fund the bill’s new programs at the authorized level. Over time, the act would have doubled federal funding of basic scientific research at several agencies, among other initiatives—but instead, the situation has become a “train wreck,” in the words of Russell Lefevre, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA and a speaker at the Minneapolis conference. Right now there’s little hope of getting America COMPETES properly funded at least until the next administration, Lefevre added—and can it really be a priority even then, in such a nasty budget situation?

According to Koizumi, 2009 could be the fifth year in a row that overall federal support for research declines in real terms.

The 2008 deficit has risen to $454 billion, a new record, and for fiscal year 2009, which began on October 1, it could conceivably rise as high as a trillion dollars, noted Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and another speaker at the Minneapolis event. As Koizumi added, science budget trends generally track overall trends in federal domestic spending, precisely what is under such incredible strain as a consequence of the follies of Wall Street.

Because of this, according to Koizumi, 2009 could be the fifth year in a row that overall federal support for research declines in real terms. And in fact, if you look at the data on funding trends broken down by area, the situation is even more troubling. While the National Institutes of Health saw a dramatic budget doubling between 1998 and 2003, other agencies have in fact not seen significant research budget increases in decades. The final science budget won’t be determined until after March 6 of 2009, thanks to a continuing resolution passed by Congress when it couldn’t agree with president Bush on spending priorities. At that point, under the new administration, things may or may not look as dismal as they do at present. But there’s every reason to fear they may appear considerably worse.

Granted, we’re not exactly doomed yet: It’s important to remember that the United States still dominates the world in total scientific research and development funding, two thirds of which comes from the private sector and not the government. But it’s also important to place these numbers in context: While the U.S. spends nearly three times as much annually on R&D as its closest competitor in terms of dollars, Japan, three Asian nations (Japan, South Korea, and China) now collectively make up almost one third of the world R&D total. And what people worry about far more than these absolute numbers are the trends, notes Koizumi. If you examine the percentage of GDP that different nations are spending on research, the United States is flat or in decline, but those same three nations are rising.

The big picture: Whether the issue is global warming or the financial crisis, it is increasingly obvious to Americans that we’ve mismanaged our present badly enough to severely jeopardize our future. Science is just a part of this mortgaging of the American destiny, but we ought to be paying it considerable attention. Science’s woes do not generally draw big headlines, in part because the research that isn’t funded today may not be missed for decades—but at that point we may miss it terribly. That’s precisely what happened with energy: Staggeringly, from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the share of total federal research and development dollars devoted to energy research declined dramatically, and now we find ourselves surrounded by energy woes. No one with any influence had any vision; and now, unless something changes, we run the risk of seeing it happen all over again.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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