News FocusScience and the Stimulus

Science and the Stimulus

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Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1176-1177
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5957.1176

An $18 billion burst of funding from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is nurturing U.S. research. Where did it go, and is it being spent wisely?

What's the best way for the U.S. government to spend $18.3 billion on basic research? The question may sound like a scientist's dream. But it's actually an ongoing experiment that began when President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) less than a month after taking office.

The Recovery Act—also known as the stimulus package—allocated $787 billion across the federal government to help lift the country out of the recession. Agencies were told to spend it quickly—before 30 September 2010—and to focus on creating jobs. But the investments are also supposed to help make the country more competitive in the long run.

The huge research windfall—the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was given $10.4 billion, the National Science Foundation (NSF) $3 billion, and the Department of Energy (DOE) received $2 billion for basic research—presented these agencies with a unique opportunity to catch up from previous shortfalls. (Several other agencies received lesser amounts for science, and DOE also received tens of billions for various energy programs.) But it also put pressure on them to find ways to avoid a disruptive boom-and-bust cycle. The 407-page legislation sets out general rules for everyone to follow, with plenty of leeway for individual agencies. This package examines what the three leading science agencies did with that flexibility and how their choices will leave a deep imprint on U.S. research for years to come. The final story in the package examines a controversial area of research jump-started with $1.1 billion in stimulus money: comparative evaluation of medical treatments (p. 1183).

How it happened

Why did the Recovery Act include so much money for science? As a candidate, Obama had talked about the need for an economic stimulus package that included research investments, and his transition team began filling in the details almost immediately after Election Day. Democratic leaders in Congress had their own ideas, dating back to the Innovation Agenda drawn up in 2005 by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) and others before Democrats won control of Congress and Pelosi became Speaker of the House of Representatives. Both groups sought input from the scientific community, which was happy to provide lists of construction-ready projects and advice on broader areas to fund.

On 15 January, the House put forward its version of the legislation, and its research provisions survived mostly intact after negotiations with the Senate. “We knew there would be competition for the dollars, but we also thought our priorities would compete favorably with any other request because we were all about the future,” Pelosi told a friendly audience of university administrators and research advocates last week.

The agencies also did their part. NSF Director Arden Bement, serving a 6-year term that runs until November 2010, had testified repeatedly before Congress that the agency had a $2 billion backlog of highly rated proposals (see p. 1181). Raynard Kington wielded less clout as acting NIH director, but NIH's final tally vastly exceeded what most agency officials had expected thanks to the efforts of Senator Arlen Specter (see p. 1179). DOE's lame-duck political appointees were not involved in any negotiations. But the final bill largely achieved funding levels for science that the department had requested in previous budgets, helping incoming Energy Secretary Steven Chu get off on the right foot. It also launched one of his priorities, a new energy research agency created by Congress that the Bush Administration had opposed (see p. 1177).

Once they received the money, the three science agencies took different approaches to spending it. DOE bankrolled a lot of infrastructure projects, especially at its national labs. NSF chose mostly to fund its backlog of good ideas. NIH did that, too. But it also held two major competitions aimed at pushing scientists in new directions. Despite short turnaround times, the solicitations generated a staggering 26,000 proposals.

The president's science adviser, John Holdren, was an adviser to the transition team during the negotiations over the Recovery Act and didn't take office until a month after the bill was enacted. But he gives his Administration colleagues a thumbs-up on the decisions they've made. The stimulus money is “addressing pressing national needs” in fields ranging from clean energy and climate change research to science education, Holdren says, as well as responding to the “pent-up demand in the community.”

Holdren's predecessor, John Marburger, gives highest marks to DOE's preference for funding construction projects and large instruments. “If you just have a burst of funding,” he says, “it makes a lot of sense to use it on capital projects [rather than grants] because it doesn't create the same longtime commitment to people and cause as much disruption when it ends.” He thinks that NSF's decision to boost success rates by funding a higher percentage of worthy proposals “was probably the easiest route and a good one.” But he worries about the long-term impact of NIH's decision to hold new competitions. “NIH has the most difficult problem [after soliciting] a huge amount of proposals and raising expectations,” says Marburger, who played no role in negotiating the size of the package. “We'll have to see if they got it right.”

Science at work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (far right) and Representative Rush Holt (second from left) helped university officials celebrate a new Web site touting the research achievements of the Recovery Act.

CREDIT: GREG SCHALER/GREGSCHALER.COM

Holdren shares that concern about what happens after the stimulus money is spent. He asserts that “agencies are generally doing well in managing their stimulus spending to ensure a smooth transition to the post ARRA-era. … [But] will these strategies be enough to avoid falling off a cliff in the future? Not entirely, simply because the size of the investment makes some dislocations inevitable after the money runs out.”

Adopting the same metaphor, Pelosi says that “falling off a cliff is not what we had in mind when we passed” the Recovery Act. And she doesn't think it will happen. “We know that we need to sustain the effort, or increase it, in both the life sciences and the hard sciences,” she says. “And no one is more aware of that need than the president.”

The White House has made it easy for the public to keep score, with a Web site, recovery.gov, based on data that recipients provide quarterly to their funding agency. A compendium of anecdotes from the grass roots about research projects that address national priorities is available at scienceworksforus.org, a new Web site created by a coalition of universities.

Those snapshots from academia and national labs are intended to sustain support for basic science as Congress races to complete work on the 2010 budget and gears up for what is expected to be a very difficult 2011 budget cycle. Last week, Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, warned research advocates of the tough road ahead. “The Recovery Act was an anomaly,” Gordon explained. “Now we're back into the regular appropriations cycle, and there's a consciousness we've got to get the deficit down.” His advice? “We have to get the band back together.”

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