2012 Budget Offers Pain and Gain for R&D

Healthy increases proposed for most federal research agencies.

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By Janet Raloff, Science News

President Obama sent the research community a valentine of sorts in his proposed 2012 federal budget. Sent to Congress on February 14, the budget was a pledge to fight for increased investment in research and education even as the president committed to a belt-tightening for most segments of federal spending.

The $3.7 trillion proposal allocates $147.9 billion to research and development in the coming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. That amounts to a small decrease from the 2011 fiscal year, after accounting for a projected 1.3 percent rate of inflation. 

Many R&D programs would see expanded or new funding to meet a number of administration goals, said presidential science adviser John Holdren, including:

  • doubling the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • spurring development of clean energy technologies and providing national high-speed Internet access
  • improving science, technology, engineering and math education
  • and promoting private R&D investment by expanding the R&D tax credit and making it permanent.
  • To pay for those priorities, Holdren says, agencies were asked to make the painful determination of which programs were underperforming or of lower priority to the president’s national objective “to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”

    “I think it is especially encouraging to have a president who really supports R&D and education,” says Albert Teich, who directs science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “You wish every president saw things this way. What's discouraging, of course, is that we face this huge deficit. And not everybody in Congress is going to agree with the president's priorities. So there's bound to be fights over it."

    How big a tussle? “That's the question of the hour. And for the answer, I think you should ask the IBM computer on Jeopardy this week," Teich says.

    This “zero sum game” for federal R&D budgeting is novel, Teich notes. It also is virtually impossible to achieve, he adds, since a host of different congressional committees are responsible for eventually drafting the spending bills that will determine how money will be apportioned for individual agencies. And they don’t coordinate their spending plans to allow such a finely balanced ledger.

    Who would feel the pain—or gain—varies considerably.

    For instance, the Department of Education has been slated for a whopping 33.5 percent increase. But owing to its relatively small R&D component, this boost would amount to a rather paltry $124 million increase. Some $80 million of that boost would pay for research into developing better science, engineering and math teachers. The president has stated a goal of increasing their numbers by 100,000 within a decade.

    Among agencies slated to experience a big dip in R&D funding, none stands to hurt more, in dollar terms, than the Department of Defense. The administration has targeted its programs for a nearly $5 billion drop. Part of the cutbacks would be made possible by terminating several major weapons systems that the administration claims “are experiencing significant development problems, unsustainable cost growth, or are not suited for today’s security challenges.”

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture, slated for a 19 percent R&D decrease, would kill all spending on research grants that Congress had initially earmarked for funding and would cancel $224 million in construction funds. These adjustments would not only allow for some overall savings, but also free up a little money to boost spending for research on human nutrition, obesity reduction, food safety, climate change and crops that could be used to produce biofuels.

    Below are summaries of the budget's effects on the following areas of R&D:

    Basic research

    Earth and climate

    Space and planetary research

    Energy sciences

    Biomedical research