Obama's Budget Gives a Boost to Science

While other federal departments face budget cuts, science agencies get more money.

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It's no accident that one of the biggest winners in President Obama's proposed budget for next year is science. 

The budget request, released last week, would significantly increase spending across many of the government's science agencies, from the National Science Foundation to the Department of Energy's Office of Science, even as other federal agencies tighten their belts. 

It's a deliberate move that speaks to a long-term strategy. The administration is trying to respond to rising anger over the deficit and avoid more political fallout by pivoting from healthcare to jobs. The funding expansion for science supports a belief long held by Obama that jobs of the future will come from industries like clean energy that are driven by scientific and technological breakthroughs. 

Overall, Obama's proposed budget clocks in at $3.8 trillion, and in some ways, it shows restraint as the administration grapples with a mushrooming deficit. Some science programs do face cuts: NASA's $100 billion effort to send a man to the moon by 2020, for example, found itself on the chopping block. 

But research--particularly energy research--emerged both intact and emboldened. Shortly before taking office, Obama had pledged to double science research in the next five to 10 years, and that pledge, say people inside and outside the administration, continues to stand. 

"We are still on track," says NSF Director Arden Bement. "At a time when domestic spending is being held level, being constrained, there's a healthy increase in the NSF budget, which is keeping faith with the president's objective of doubling it." 

Under the president's plan, the NSF would get about $550 million above what it received last year, an 8 percent bump. The agency would use the increase to double its research on technologies to spur renewable energy use and to support more students and young scientists. At the Energy Department, wind-power programs would see more than a 50 percent jump in funding, and solar programs would get a 34 percent raise. Even basic science research, designed to uncover new ideas, gets a boost. "If you look at what we have to do by midcentury, we have to accelerate the deployment of new technologies," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress Thursday. 

Of course, Congress still has to approve the president's proposal. And if history is any guide, there will be clashes. One of the hallmarks of Obama's efforts to invigorate the energy sector in 2009 was the launch of ARPA-E, an Energy Department program designed to foster innovations in technology. Though Congress authorized it in 2007, the program initially went unfunded, a fate common among new energy initiatives in recent years. It eventually received $400 million through the stimulus package. Now Obama and Chu want $300 million more. 

To help finance these science programs, the budget calls for eliminating tax breaks for the oil industry. That's bound to stir up opposition. But supporters hope Congress will think long term. "A modest investment in research and development really goes a long way down the road," says Joe Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society. According to one study, conducted by the Council for Chemical Research, every dollar invested in research translates into $40 in domestic economic growth. Right now, the country could surely use it.