Basic research funds face years of cuts

By DEE ANN DIVIS, Senior Science and Techology Editor

WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- The Bush administration last week cut the budget for the National Science Foundation, which funds much of the nation's non-medical basic research.

Though is it widely agreed the U.S. economy is based on discoveries from such research, there is little chance that more money will be found for science this year ... or next year ... or the year after that. The more distant future looks even worse.


NSF got $5.5 billion out of the $5.78 billion it requested for fiscal year 2005, which begins Oct. 1. This is $111 million below what the Foundation received last year.

Three proposed new starts did get funded:

-- The National Ecological Observatory Network received $12 million for planning. Eventually, it will enable environmental studies on a regional or continental scale.

-- NSF got $28 million of the $40 million it requested for the Scientific Ocean Drilling Vessel, a joint project with the Japanese to gather and study ocean cores.


-- The Rare Symmetry Violating Process, a high energy physics project, also was funded.

It is the smaller projects that are going to get hurt.

The National Science Foundation pays for 56 percent of the nation's basic research in computer science, 60 percent of basic research in math and 85 percent in civil engineering -- all of which are key to the economy. One-third of basic materials science research is funded by NSF.

NSF also supports ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, as well as research programs in anthropology and environmental biology.

All in all, 20 percent of all federally supported, non-medical research projects receive money from NSF and nearly 40 percent of such projects conducted at academic institutions.

"The cuts will come mostly in terms of individual investigator awards and science and technology centers," said David Stonner, head of NSF's congressional affairs section. "Some very smart talented people won't get funding."

Part of the reason for the cuts is election-year competition. Funding for NSF falls within a larger bill that also covers the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. Under the same fiscal roof are EPA and NASA, the only federal agency -- other than the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security -- to receive a budget increase request for FY 2005.


The needs of these agencies are real and they are better-connected politically.

"This is described by both the majority and minority as a no-winners bill," a senior congressional staffer told United Press International. "The two places that actually got big increases (the VA's Veteran's Health Administration and HUD's Section 8 housing) ... neither of those groups is happy," the staffer said, adding, "both of them would say it is not enough even to maintain current services."

"The veterans and the housing advocates are a much more politically active community than the academic research community," acknowledged Stonner. He also noted the diffuse way NSF allocates its money makes it more difficult politically because there are no big projects with lots of jobs at stake, such as the space shuttle, to generate political interest.

A letter released by the Coalition for Science Funding on July 22 asserted that the reduction is "diametrically opposite" to a law passed in 2002 that authorized a doubling of the NSF budget over five years.

"There is some hope that the Senate might do something better," said Sam Rankin, associate executive director for the American Mathematical Society.

"The Senate is thought to be using an emergency declaration to free up some additional money," confirmed the staffer. "So if it ever goes to conference there is some hope that there would be additional money, but NSF is probably not the first in line if it does. So it doesn't look good."


If this were just a temporary glitch in research funding it might not be so bad. Unfortunately, things are looking to grow worse.

According to an Office of Management and Budget document from January 2004, the White House plans to cut domestic discretionary research and related activities from now through FY 2009. The cuts are in relation to a baseline -- an estimated multi-year budget that projects current plans forward, allowing for inflation.

The numbers show cuts to both budget authority and outlays, in accounts affecting NSF. Budgetary authority is what NSF is allowed to spend, while outlays reflect actual payments. For example, a 10-year program in high-energy physics should have a higher budgetary authority, or BA, in the beginning, which is used up over time with outlays.

Cuts in budgetary authority, therefore, will likely impact programs well into the future. Cuts in outlays, on the other hand, probably means cuts in programs underway now.

Whatever, it is not good news. The administration is planning to trim $20 million in budget authority for federal research and related activities in FY 2006 and make greater and greater cuts until it slices $215 million from BA in FY09.


Cuts to outlays are a bit slower. FY 2006 actually sees $53 million more for research and related activities than the baseline. Then, in FY 2007 outlays are cut by $3 million from the baseline and the cuts mount until, in FY 2009, they reach $126 million.

The point, said the staffer, is not the specific numbers but the trend. The numbers will change every year but the trend reflects the priority and plans of the administration.

Would a Democratic White House or Congress make a difference?

"If you look at the macro policy generated by the tax and discretionary and mandatory spending numbers," the staffer said, "it is very hard to see this getting a whole lot better, no matter who is president or who is in control of the House or Senate.

The staffer continued, "If there is a change in political control, then there probably will be some change in amounts for discretionary spending -- and science will be one of those areas that I think will compete for that -- but I think that there is a general view that tough times are ahead."



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