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A First-Place Budget for Science

Administration Proposes Foundational Investments in Innovation

President Obama addresses the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2009. SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert President Obama addresses the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2009.

“I do not accept second place for the United States of America,” President Obama said last week in his State of the Union address. Speaking of investments that countries like China, Germany, and India are making in their innovative economies, the president was clear: “These nations, they’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.”

Fortunately, the budget request for fiscal year 2011 that the Obama administration released on Monday includes foundational investments that will help the United States remain the leader among innovative nations. Congressional leaders should support the president’s vision by adopting these investments in their budget later this year.

In keeping with the president’s pledge to freeze domestic discretionary spending, the overall increase in research and development is only a modest 0.2 percent increase over FY2010, but by trimming defense-related research, the budget requests a 5.9 percent boost for non-defense R&D for a total $147.7 billion for federal R&D. This is an important step toward investing 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in public and private R&D—a goal President Obama laid out in a speech last spring to the National Academy of Sciences.

This also continues the about-face in funding trends begun last year. The Bush administration allowed the federal R&D investment to decline in real dollars after FY2004. Some sectors were hit harder by this neglect than others. Flat funding for the National Institutes of Health from 2004 through 2008 led to a situation in which the purchasing power for the inflation-adjusted budget actually declined 13 percent over the course of those five years. In addition to the two-year, $10 billion boost the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directed to NIH last year, the president’s budget calls for a $1 billion bump in annual funding, for a total of $32.1 billion.

The budget expands support for R&D over the next fiscal year, but it also continues laying the foundation for sustained advances in science and technology by moving along the path to double the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Commerce Department’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology. The Center for American Progress advocated this doubling effort in the 2007 report, “A National Innovation Agenda.”

To that end, the request expands the DOE Office of Science budget by 4.6 percent to a total of $5.1 billion. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would receive $300 million to fund high-risk, high-return research. ARPA-E funds blue-sky projects in advanced energy technologies, and is modeled on the fabled Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where bold thinkers have the resources to “aim for the fences.” The DOE budget also includes $107 million for the three existing Energy Innovation Hubs, and adds a fourth Hub focused on batteries and energy storage.

Jonathan Sallet, Ed Paisley, and Justin Masterman noted in their Science Progress report, “The Geography of Innovation,” that the hubs will help “spur the development of the innovation clusters that will help solve our national energy challenges, create jobs, and promote widespread economic growth.” Targeted regional innovation support is also a focus of president’s budget for the Economic Development Agency, with $75 million to support innovation clusters that leverage local competitive strengths. The “Geography of Innovation” authors explain wisdom of this place-specific approach, writing that “regions that are bound together by a network of shared advantages create virtuous cycles of innovation that succeed by emphasizing the key strengths of the local businesses, universities and other research and development institutions, and non-profit organizations.”

“One of the changes that I would like to see,” the president told an audience at Georgetown University just a few months into his administration, “is once again seeing our best and our brightest commit themselves to making things—engineers, scientists, innovators.” This budget pours more resources into that goal, with $3.7 billion for science, technology, engineering, and math education. This builds on the administration’s public-private Educate to Innovate partnership that will enhance STEM education in schools across the country.

The NSF budget would also support the next generation of scientists by increasing the number of Graduate Research Fellowships. An 8 percent increase in the requested NSF budget, totaling $7.4 billion, maintains its doubling trajectory.

An 18.3 percent increase over FY2010 in NASA’s R&D portfolio would bring the total to $11 billion. Writing last year in Science Progress, former presidential science adviser Neal Lane and former Director of the NASA Johnson Space Center George Abbey advised reversing a trend of neglect for the agency’s scientific work. They recommended that scientific research, including earth observations, should be a top priority for NASA. This budget embraces the same priorities, reflecting the administration’s commitment to “to deploy a global climate change research and monitoring system.” As well, a 21 percent increase (for total of $2.6 billion) for U.S. Global Change Research Program, which spans 13 agencies, will advance our understanding of global warming and enhance our ability to adapt to a changing climate.

In short, as Science Progress editor-in-chief Jonathan D. Moreno points out today on the main website of the Center for American Progress, “We observed in Science Progress on several occasions that the founders of our country appreciated the new nation’s need for strength in science, oftentimes more than some of their benighted successors in government. That’s why it is encouraging that we have a president and an administration with a vision in the founders’ spirit. Now Congress needs to do its job to ensure that the United States of Science rescues America—and perhaps the assumptions behind the global stability on which we depend—from a decade of financial mismanagement.”

Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor for Science Progress.

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