Beyond the Stimulus

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Science  20 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5917, pp. 983
DOI: 10.1126/science.1172425

The American public understands that innovation in science and technology is the best guarantor of our economic future. National research budgets are not subsidies but strategic investments to be sustained even in the worst of times. Thanks to the relevant administration and congressional leaders, science has been well served in the stimulus package just signed by President Obama. The $21.5 billion for R&D projects over the next 2 years is the result of compromises based on a variety of opinions as to the proper levels of support for U.S. science. Take funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example. The House initially proposed that the NIH receive $3.5 billion, whereas the Senate, under the extraordinary leadership of Senator Arlen Specter, proposed $10 billion, the figure in the final bill. So what should the appropriate level of support be beyond the stimulus? Is there a quantifiable rationale beyond “more is always better?”


First, the timing and amount of this stimulus could not have been more opportune. Since 2003, U.S. science budgets have fallen, when compared to the rate of inflation. In good economic times, the impact of these federal budget shortfalls was lessened by increased support from philanthropic foundations, more generous private gifts, larger endowment proceeds, and other sources such as state funding or clinical revenues. But all of these nonfederal sources are now severely depleted. In 2007, the sum total of endowments for the top 75 U.S. universities amounted to about $300 billion. Today, a quarter to a third of that value, or $75 billion to $100 billion, has disappeared. Gift giving is also drastically down. Estimates of these combined losses range from $7 billion to $10 billion for 2009 alone. Many universities have announced deep cost reductions and freezes on new positions that will have particularly negative consequences for young scientists. I have testified in Congress that for every $1 billion shortfall in the NIH base budget, an estimated 6000 to 9000 scientific jobs are lost, with an equal number of jobs lost in indirect support activities. With increased layoffs in industry, one has to be deeply concerned about the human research capacity of the United States across all sciences, a key determinant of our future competitiveness.

The economic stimulus will lessen these risks in the short term. But it is only a partial answer. It will not stave off the loss of talented scientists unless it is coupled with a longer-term increase in the base budgets of the research agencies. This would avoid the detrimental and painful effects of a rapid rise followed by a fall in budgets, as has been experienced by the NIH in recent years. What should the level of long-term support be? The NIH lost 15% of its purchasing power, or $4 billion, between 2003 and 2009. At a time when research is characterized by an interdisciplinary convergence between the physical and biological sciences, the base federal support for the physical and engineering disciplines has decreased to an even greater degree; these critical research fields would require additional support variously estimated at about $6 billion per year to reach a better balance between biological and physical sciences. Thus, beyond the stimulus, the base science budgets of the relevant domestic agencies should increase by at least $10 billion per year, a minimum goal to strive for by fiscal year 2012.

A nation's most strategic resource is the strength of its scientific workforce. It is imperative that the entire scientific community coalesce around a quantifiable and shared rationale for rebalancing the base domestic federal research budget beyond the one-time stimulus package. This is a task that will be made more difficult by growing federal deficits, but it may well be attainable given the clear and welcome commitment to science just shown by the new U.S. administration and Congress.

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