The Budget: Too Good or True?

Science  13 Feb 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5353, pp. 963a
DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5353.963a

U.S.-based scientists remain astonished at the proposals to bolster most parts of the federal R&D portfolio to all-time highs. President Clinton's 1999 budget differs markedly from the administration's prior offerings of small increases for basic research that relied on Congress to up the ante. This year's budget includes a long-requested increase for basic research in the Department of Agriculture and would provide near-double-digit or larger percent increases for parts of the two major academic research funders, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, while holding basic research stable within the Department of Defense. Only NASA's total budget will decrease, and its science could be further squeezed by the space station's anticipated overruns.

Many have worked long and earnestly to bring the economic, educational, and altruistic values of increased investments in basic research to the attention of supporters in the executive and congressional branches. Those efforts have been remarkably successful. A bipartisan group led by Senators Gramm (R-TX), Lieberman (D-CT), Domenici (R-NM), and Bingaman (D-NM) has proposed legislation to double funding for basic research by 2008. Plans were already well under way, with the support of Representative Porter (R-IL), to double the NIH's budget over the next 5 years. Congressman Ehlers's (R-MI) editorial (see Science, 16 January) calling for a reformulation of our national science policy was but the latest in a series of bipartisan voices who have spoken through this column and elsewhere to support deeper commitment to scientific research.

Given the president's proposals and this preexisting positive sentiment, the domestic scientific community seems prepared to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The proposed budget numbers seem almost too good to be true. Only an extreme skeptic would seriously doubt that happy days are almost here again. But then, scientists used to the evanescent thrills of a totally unexpected experimental result will be well acquainted with the adage that “if it's too good to be true, maybe it isn't (true).” Before we start spending all those grants to be financed from this new national commitment to research, it may be useful to take a closer look at some of the “little” steps left to be taken.

Now that the president has proposed his budget, the budget game moves to Congress, where three separate processes will be activated: budgeting, authorization, and appropriation. Each function goes through separate committees in the House of Representatives and Senate, whose oversight of the various research agencies is only superficially similar. These fragmented budgetary responsibilities have precluded comprehensive debate to derive a national R&D budget. However, for the first time in nearly 30 years, Congress will be working with an overall budget that projects a surplus. That should make it easier for the budget committees to provide generous spending guidelines for the appropriations committees to respond to the president's proposals.

But will they? Surely, critical political battles lie ahead. Should the additional revenues instead be spent to shore up the Social Security fund, or should that whole system be re-thought? Should the predicted revenue surplus be rendered into tax cuts as the Repubican leadership has recommended, given that tax revenues will now exceed any prior peacetime budget? Only when these debates are engaged will the community learn which R&D programs the White House will really choose to defend, and which will be surrendered in favor of other politically popular claimants on the federal budget.

Will there really be extra money to spend on science? The not-so-fine print reveals that the proposed funds for enriching biomedical research are yoked to proceeds not yet in hand to be collected from the national tobacco industry settlement. That agreement is yet to be revised in a form that health officials have agreed to recommend to Congress, and congressional approval will be required. In fact, the settlement remains highly controversial and its prospects in Congress remain uncertain (see page 974). Perhaps the scientific community is not quite able to ignore again the dreaded “p” word—prioritization?

With our readers, we fervently hope that these next steps will go smoothly and that citizens of good mind and purpose will agree on the best next steps to be taken. We'll be watching closely. Meanwhile keep those cards and letters flowing and express yourselves.

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