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Tough Times for Science Funding

Experts paint bleak picture for future growth in federal R&D investment

May 9, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 19


The science and technology community is facing some tough challenges. In today's difficult economic times, federal science and technology agencies must compete with other agencies for shrinking amounts of discretionary funds. Educators must work hard to get young people into the science and technology career pipeline. And scientists must deal with growing public fears related to cutting-edge research.


These issues were major topics of discussion at the 30th annual American Association for the Advancement of Science Forum on Science & Technology Policy held in Washington, D.C., on April 21 and 22. The presentations did not paint a reassuring picture for the near future of science and technology with respect to federal funding or education.

According to Paul L. Posner, managing director of federal budget issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the proportion of discretionary funds--from which science-related funds come--in the federal budget has been on the decline for decades. For example, he pointed out that, in fiscal 1964, 67% of the budget was discretionary. As federal programs with funding mandates such as Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid came on-line, they caused a shift in budget composition. By 1984, discretionary spending had dropped to 45%, and in 2004, to 39%.

EFFORTS TO rein in the federal deficit will only add to the downward pressure on discretionary funding levels, Posner and others noted. In 2005, the federal deficit will reach an estimated record high of $427 billion, said AAAS Director of R&D Budget & Policy Programs Kei Koizumi, who, like Posner, worries about the effect that this will have on science and technology investment.

Koizumi noted that nonsecurity-related discretionary funding was flat in fiscal 2005 and fell by 1% in the 2006 presidential budget request. He added, however, that the 2006 budget request does not include funding for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, items that will undoubtedly impact the final budget composition.

Although future budget growth may not look promising, Koizumi pointed out that 2005 federal R&D funding is at a record high of $132 billion, which, like the rest of discretionary funding, remains essentially flat in 2006. This lack of growth actually translates to a decline in funding for most R&D programs while giving a modest increase to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and for R&D at the Department of Homeland Security, he noted.

Even in the areas where funding increases are requested, namely space exploration and homeland security R&D, tough decisions will have to be made. For example, Koizumi pointed out, at NASA the budget will be tight because the agency has been given a lot to do with its money. And even with the increased funding, the agency will still have to make cuts to its physical science and environmental science research, he said.

Operating in a flat-funding situation will only increase competition among agencies that each want to increase their piece of the unchanging pie, noted Scott Lilly, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "The more powerful actors are going to start crowding out the weaker ones, and I'm afraid that science is probably one of the weaker actors," he said.

The current U.S. fiscal policy, however, is unsustainable, Posner said. Based on GAO data, he explained that, without policy changes, by 2040 this country's revenue will no longer be able to support any discretionary spending measured as a share of the gross domestic product. The situation is even bleaker for the case in which discretionary funding grows with GDP after 2005 and expiring tax provisions are extended, he said. Under this scenario, discretionary funds would no longer be sustainable prior to 2030.

To avoid the outcome predicted by such scenarios, Posner said that new accounting and reporting approaches must be implemented and new metrics must be developed to measure the long-term impact of federal policies. He also noted that base programs in the budget must be reevaluated.

Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John H. Marburger III also raised the call for better metrics to measure long-term impacts of policies and for funding related to R&D. Currently, he said, the U.S. has in place a "primitive framework" for evaluating policies and assessing science and technology strength.

"In the absence of models that link inputs like federal R&D investments to outputs like per capita GDP, we collect annual data and fit straight lines to it to forecast future conditions," Marburger explained. Although this information provides useful benchmarks for policy-making, it does not provide a good comparison to other countries with respect to R&D investments. Also, he adds, R&D investments should include both government and private-sector funding for international comparisons.

Marburger proposed the development of a new field dealing with the social science of science policy. This field, he argued, would provide the needed models to understand the complex dynamics of a "global, technology-based society."

The forum also looked at the status of the science and technology workforce. For America to remain a global economic leader, the panelists agreed, steps must be taken to make sure a highly skilled workforce is being trained.

Anthony P. Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education & the Economy, noted that in various international math and science performance tests, U.S. students rank in the middle of those tested. This mediocrity, he pointed out, has led some to ask the question: How can the U.S. be so far behind in science and technology and still be the front-runner in economic competition?

According to Carnevale, the reason for the economic success of the U.S. comes down to flexibility and scale. Flexibility is important because it allows U.S. labor markets to adapt to changing needs in the workforce, he said.

The sheer scale of the U.S. workforce is also an advantage because "it ensures that we have as many, and often more, of the highest scores in our workforce," he noted. For example, if testing shows that Japanese students are twice as likely to have high science and math scores as compared with students in the U.S., it doesn't matter because the U.S. has twice as many students and therefore nets the same number of high-scoring students.

Carnevale warned, however, that this kind of competitive advantage is temporary: "We can't remain a first-rate economic power with a second-rate education system." Ultimately, he noted, continued economic success will come down to the quality of America's assets--that is, its high-tech workforce.

Norine E. Noonan, dean of the School of Science & Mathematics at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, also spoke about the dependence of U.S. economic survival on a strong science and technology workforce. Unlike Carnevale, she worries that the U.S. has already lost its competitive advantage. To correct this situation, she stressed that K-12 teachers who teach math and science must be required to hold bachelor's degrees in the areas that they teach, as opposed to general education degrees.

Noonan also expressed her concerns about the lack of effort she is seeing in today's college students. Although not as prevalent in math and science majors, there is a dearth of real ambition, she pointed out. She noted that this ambition gap leads students away from math and science and into areas like business and communication that aren't as demanding yet still have good job opportunities.

Another problem Noonan pointed out was the lack of excitement in introductory science courses. Often the students taking these courses have no interest in science but must take the course to meet degree requirements. More of an effort must be made to get these nonscience students comfortable with science, she said, adding that it is these students who often grow up to hold public office or serve on school boards, where they make key science and technology policy and education decisions.

THIS LACK of understanding can also translate into fear toward all things science--something that is prevalent in today's society. Attacks on science from high-level officials compound the public's fear, said Lawrence M. Krauss, professor and chair in the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

"Science is based on good intentions and honesty," Krauss said. Scientists, therefore, are ill-equipped to deal with intentionally misleading information common in the political arena, he explained.

For this reason, scientists must be more aware of the political context their work falls into and pay more attention to marketing the broad facts and less attention to the specific details of their work. He also noted that to be effective, scientists must take their cases to the public and interact with them in public venues. After all, Krauss pointed out, "we are the only people who can protect against bad science."

One area where science is often misrepresented is evolution, Krauss pointed out. Those individuals against the teaching of evolution in schools prey on the poor understanding of the public about the nature of scientific uncertainties, he explained. They focus on these uncertainties to create doubt.

Krauss told the audience that to defend against these attacks on evolution--which he said are really attacks on science--scientists must counter the misconceptions and show that the critic's alternative to evolution, namely intelligent design, is flawed. Specifically, he and others said, it must be made clear that one doesn't have to be an atheist to recognize evolution.

The importance of science and technology to the economic success of the U.S. is nothing new. Nor is the call for scientists to do more to educate the public and, in particular, public officials. But in this tight federal budget era, the experts agreed, it has become increasingly important for scientists to take actions for the good of science and technology and for the sustained economic prosperity of the U.S.

"I do not fear so much that our current budgets are too small, or that our facilities are inadequate, or that our policies guiding federal research are too restrictive," OSTP's Marburger said. "But I worry constantly that our tools for making wise decisions, and bringing along the American people and their elected representatives, are not yet sharp enough to manage the complexity of our evolving relationship with the awakening globe."



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