December 21, 2007    Volume 14, No. 22

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A Big Lump Of Coal: President & Congress Give A Christmas Present To The Federal Science Agencies


This marks another year that provides further proof of a congressional budget process that is completely dysfunctional.

After months of intense hand-wringing about the dire situation of the physical sciences in the United States due to the long-term stagnation of research funds; after congressional approval and President Bush's signature on a vast "authorization" bill aimed at doubling federal funding of research for the physical sciences; after countless hearings and studies warning the country of "a gathering storm"; after all this and a lot more, the physical sciences received a monumental shaft in the $515.7 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR-2764) approved by Congress during the week of December 17.

The National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Energy's Office of Science are reeling after Congress and the President decided that virtually every other aspect of government spending should take precedence over their modest programs. It is no longer worth believing a word out of any national politician's mouth when he or she starts talking about the importance of science and technology to the nation's future.

Now that there is an appropriations bill, the much ballyhooed America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science (COMPETES) Act, an "authorization" bill signed by President Bush on August 7, 2007, means nothing.

Almost all increases in funding for the agencies carrying out the national charter for advancing research into the physical sciences, came in the form of pork projects that have nothing to do with the sciences. In the entire 3,565-page omnibus bill, there were more than 11,900 congressional pork barrel projects totaling billions of dollars.

The National Science Foundation's budget for next year will increase by a lowly 2.5 percent, to $5.9 billion, far below the expected level of inflation and substantially less than the $6.6 billion "authorized" in the America COMPETES Act of 2007. The final appropriation for 2008 is far short of the $6.43 billion proposed by President Bush in January (an 8.7 percent increase), or the $6.55 billion approved by the Senate (up 10.8 percent) or the $6.5 billion approved by the House.

NIST's final budget number of $756 million has $51 million in earmarks for construction projects in Alabama and Mississippi, home states of two Senate members (Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss.) who sit on the NIST appropriations committee. Among those earmarks is $30 million for "a laboratory and research space at the South Alabama Engineering and Science Center." Another $30 million is directed toward "competitive grants for research science they relate to the Department of Commerce," according to wording in the bill. "These grants shall be awarded to colleges, universities and other non-profit science research organizations on a competitive basis." None of this has anything to do with NIST, and yet, there it is stuffed into its budget.

Other NIST programs get hammered. The Manufacturing Extension Partnership's budget plunges by 14.4 percent from $104.7 million in 2007 to $89.6 million in 2008. In the America COMPETES Act, the budget for MEP was directed to increase to $110 million in 2008. (By comparison, the agricultural extension program run by the Department of Agriculture receives an appropriation of $456 million).

The Technology Innovation Program, which is replacing the Advanced Technology Program, will receive $65 million, down from $79 million last year and down from the $100 million authorized in the America COMPETES Act. An "explanatory statement" provided with the omnibus appropriations bill says that the 2008 amount "will address mortgage obligations relating to projects created under the Advanced Technology Program."

NIST's laboratory program receives $440 million, an increase of $6 million over 2007's budget of $434 million, or a 1.4 percent increase. This is far lower than the $500 million President Bush requested, and the amounts approved by the House and Senate appropriations bills, which were in line with the Bush request, representing a 15 percent increase in NIST's laboratory budget.

The Department of Energy's Office of Science sees its budget increase 2.6 percent next year to $4.02 billion, far less than the $4.5 billion approved by the House Appropriations Committee and $4.49 billion approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. But subtract out earmarks and the Science Office budget goes down by another $124 million to $3.89 billion, an increase of $97.8 million over last year and $504 million lower than the Bush administration's original request.

Health research at the NIH is also stagnant, rising just 1 percent to $29.2 billion.

Other programs in the $516 billion omnibus bill receive substantial boosts in funding, including $5 billion to combat AIDS around the world, $544 million more than Bush sought; and $3.7 billion more than Bush's request for veterans programs.

Not a word was said by any politician lamenting the shortfall of support for the research infrastructure that supports wealth generation of the American society. Among politicians, R&D is among the lowest of all government funding priorities. As of press time on Dec. 19, even the House Science Committee had not issued a press release about the loss of funding for its beloved programs.

In reading through dozens of press releases issued by members of Congress, there are great proclamations about the keen work done to secure earmarks for local congressional districts. Rep. John Boozman (D-Ark.) issued a press release listing 150 pork barrel projects he helped secure for his state totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, including $2.9 million for the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Boonsville.

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) pronounced victory in securing $4.6 million for northwest Indiana crime prevention initiatives. "This funding is in addition to the over $58 million in energy and water infrastructure projects announced by Visclosky yesterday," his press release boasts.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has spoken eloquently at press conferences about the need for a vibrant research enterprise, said in his press release that the omnibus bill "includes funding for the military and its veterans, border security, drought relief, dam infrastructure repair, national park improvements and other projects vital to Tennessee." He then observes that the bill has "too many earmarks and gimmicks." Five paragraphs later he starts listing the earmarks in the bill headed to Tennessee including $34.6 million "to continue design, land acquisition and construction of the new Chikamauga Lock."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) proclaimed in his press release: "The bill contains millions of dollars for projects across Michigan." He, too, then lists hundreds of earmarks headed into Michigan, including tens of thousand of dollars for a program at Wayne State University "to support exchanges between the U.S. and China, Detroit."

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