May 6, 2005    Volume 12, No. 9

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Science Advisor Defends Bush Record On R&D,
But Criticism Within The Physical Sciences Community Lingers



BY KEN JACOBSON


Key Republican House members are stepping forward with concerns over federal research funding levels, apparently undeterred by a recent signal from Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger that the administration's defense of its 2006 science and technology budget will be a vigorous one.

Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice & Commerce this week voiced not only his hope that the administration will make a "bold commitment" to multi-year funding of basic research in its budget request for Fiscal Year 2007, but also his intention to help bring that about.

Wolf told Manufacturing & Technology News that he is looking to place language in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill now in House-Senate conference that would result in a major Washington conference, possibly in late summer, designed to "make the case to the nation" for ramped-up spending on science and technology.

At least a dozen Republican members of the House Science Committee, including Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.) and all four subcommittee chairs, were among the signatories to a letter calling on House appropriators to provide the National Science Foundation with $6.1 billion in 2006, a sum 8.8 percent above the $5.6 billion requested by the administration.

One of the signatories, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), expressed particular dissatisfaction with the proposed budget for basic science programs at the Department of Energy at an April 27 hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy, which she chairs.

While calling herself "as fiscally conservative as they come," Biggert stated: "As the nation emerges from an economic slowdown and confronts global competition on a variety of fronts, it seems counterintuitive to cut -- by almost 4 percent -- the basic, fundamental research that is the foundation of American innovation and competitiveness. But in some specific ways, this is what the administration's budget proposes to do."

These rumblings from the right side of the aisle more or less coincided with an unyielding address that Marburger gave on April 21 as the keynote speaker at the annual Policy Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In it, the administration's top scientist repeated claims for this year's proposed S&T budget whose bases had previously been challenged in analyses by the AAAS, coalitions of scientific and industrial organizations and the House Science Committee. For example:

  • He insisted that "Federal R&D funding is actually increased in the President's request," although the proposed increase -- placed by AAAS at 0.1 percent and by the House Science Committee at 1 percent over the previous year -- is small enough that, according to AAAS, "growth in the federal R&D portfolio would fail to keep pace with inflation for the first time in a decade"

  • He singled out for attention that "the administration has maintained high levels of support" for the interagency priority areas of nanotechnology, information technology and climate change science in the wake of the Science Committee's observation in its "Views and Estimates" that "all three receive cuts in the budget request" (MTN, March 23, p. 2);

  • He labeled the period of 2001-2005 "the Great Advance" in federal R&D funding, despite AAAS analysis asserting that, when recent hikes for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are set aside, "nondefense R&D funding agencies collectively have seen their budgets remain flat over the past 15 years, after factoring out the recent creation of the [Department of Homeland Security]."

    "I think Dr. Marburger tried to put the best face on a difficult situation," commented Albert Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs for AAAS. "He used his data selectively, talking about outlays based on budget authority that was increased years ago rather than about the fact that budget authority is going down."

    The assessment of Michael Lubell, the American Physical Society's director of Public Affairs (APS), was somewhat less nuanced. "What the Bush administration has done is to lump all R&D together and say, 'We've done fine.'"

    Echoing the AAAS budget analysis, he said that while increasing military R&D budgets and "taking credit" for a ramping-up of the NIH budget authorized before it took office, the current administration "has done precious little for anyone else" in the research community.

    Lubell further charged Marburger and the Bush administration with "a lot of dissembling" in how it represents its budgets. As an example, he pointed to the administration's claim that funding is up for the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) while at the same time not accounting for the unbudgeted costs associated with the proposed termination of the Advanced Technology Program, which is managed by NIST. He equated this with "carrying two sets of books."

    Marburger, in addition to defending the current budget request, questioned the methods of unspecified "commentators" whom he charged with having "parsed half to death" the "remarkable record" of an administration with which he credited "R&D growth...exceeded only by the buildup of federal funding in the post-Sputnik era of the early 1960s."

    One obvious object of Marburger's criticism was a report on U.S. competitiveness published by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation in February, which presented a series of "Benchmarks of our Innovation Future" (MTN, Feb. 22, p. 1).

    Marburger characterized the benchmarks, aimed at illustrating the contention that the United States' world lead "in research and discovery...is rapidly eroding, and our global competitors may soon overtake us," as both heavily dependent on years-old data and methodologically unsound. "Let us not kid ourselves that these 'benchmarks' contain information useful for policy-making," he declared.

    "When he said we need better tools for relating R&D inputs persuasively to outputs, he was right," commented Teich. "But what he didn't say is that the federal government makes almost no money available for science policy research, so people in the academic world have no place to turn."

    Lubell, whose APS was one of 22 organizations and corporations that sponsored the benchmarking report, was more specific. "He attacked us for benchmarking [the S&T budget] against GDP, but any corporation knows that you need to scale your research with your output, and GDP is the output of our economy."

    The Science Adviser, he protested, "also attacked us for using semilog charts." Noting that logarithmic scales are used "not only for issues of scale but also for trends," he remarked, "Jack's a physicist, he's done that throughout his career."

    Summing up his reaction to Marburger's methodological objections, Lubell declared: "I can't comment on his motives, but he certainly knows better."

    Marburger's April 21 speech to the AAAS S&T Policy Forum can be viewed at http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhm2005AAASscipolicyforum04-21-05%20final.pdf.


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