Feds science budget gets mixed review

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 13, 2002 at 4:54 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- The Bush administration is correct in trying to rid science-related budgets of the legislative practice of earmarking or setting aside money for pet projects, a National Academy of Sciences report said Friday.

Funding is better allocated when scientific review panels pick out worthwhile proposals, according to the report, "Observations on the President's Fiscal Year 2003 Federal Science and Technology Budget."

"Congress should take care to minimize earmarks in science and technology, particularly performer-specific earmarks," the report said. "The responsibility is also shared by universities and research faculty."

While an overabundance of earmarking is counterproductive, the report might be a bit off-target in suggesting the practice be curtailed, said Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on how emerging technologies can help society.

"It's not necessarily a bad idea to take a small portion of the budget and (allocate) it some other way, to roll the dice," Peterson told United Press International. "You can argue the (peer review) system works pretty well, but it might work to do a little bit of something different."

Examples of this approach can be found at the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where program managers have the authority to set aside a few percent of their budgets to explore high-risk ideas, Peterson said. Introducing this principle more widely among federal agencies could be very beneficial, she said.

The White House's research priorities get lower grades in the NAS report, which concludes a much more interdisciplinary approach is needed. The overwhelming majority of the 2003 budget request's increases for science falls under biotech programs at the National Institutes of Health and counter-terrorism efforts, the report said.

The administration calls the Department of Energy's Office of Science a leading sponsor of work in the physical sciences, the report said, but proposed a budget for the office that falls just short of last year's levels. Even the budget increase at the National Science Foundation, considered by many the nation's premier multidisciplinary research agency, would fail to keep pace with inflation, the report said.

"Although funding priorities must be driven by policy concerns, questions of (what constitutes adequate funding) must be addressed by a process that looks to (an uncertain) future," the report said. "Funding for research must be guided by a strategy that ... recognizes there is tremendous uncertainty about the source of future scientific breakthroughs."

While biotechnology presents many opportunities for discovery, other areas of research are automatically interdisciplinary, the report said. The budding field of nanotechnology, where scientists are learning to manipulate matter at the atomic or molecular level, is a good example of this, it noted.

The Foresight Institute focuses on nanotech, and the skills needed to make it an everyday occurrence include physics, chemistry, computer science, biology and several types of engineering, Peterson told UPI. The National Nanotechnology Initiative already is bringing together a wide range of agencies and researchers and could be considered a model for other multi-specialty programs, she said.

The report suggests the White House and Capitol Hill set science and technology investment levels by taking into account several factors, including:

-- the need for diversity in advancing knowledge, such as funding various approaches to research problems;

-- the need to maintain an appropriate mix of projects, new facilities and equipment, and people, the latter being essential for ensuring a healthy science workforce;

-- funding levels in other sectors of society, including industry, and;

-- the need for every project, regardless of its practical goals, to contribute to long-term fundamental research.

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