In December 2002, president george W. Bush signed into law the National Science Foundation Act, an act that supposedly put the agency on course to double its budget by 2007. Two years later, NSF's hopes of seeing any significant budget growth have all but faded as the agency braces for its first budget decrease in almost 10 years.
The budget cut is part of the fiscal 2005 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last November and signed by the President in December. The bill--which combines nine appropriations bills--sets NSF's fiscal 2005 budget at $5.5 billion, down about $107 million from 2004 and down $277 million from the President's 2005 request.
But why would Congress cut the budget of an agency it recently slated for doubling? One reason is that with the tight budget constraints currently in place, congressional appropriators have a limited amount of discretionary funds to spread out among all the agencies. In the case of NSF, which falls into the Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing & Urban Development & Independent Agencies (VA-HUD), it must directly compete for its slice of the budgetary pie with agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration.
The tight budget aside, some people have expressed a worrisome concern that NSF's budget cut is revenge for the political activity of scientists in the 2004 presidential election. The concern is that because many in the scientific community supported Democratic Sen. John Kerry's failed presidential campaign and because of the outspokenness of scientists against some of the President's policies, all things related to science are on some kind of hit list of the Republican majority.
At a forum on the impact of the presidential election held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December, this issue was addressed by Robert E. Palmer, who retired as minority staff director of the House Science Committee at the end of 2004. He said the cut to NSF was impacted by both the tight budget and the scientific community's political activism.
"I don't think one has to conjure up the conspiracy that there were people in the [omnibus appropriations] conference or the White House out to get science," Palmer said. "But when you are in a tight bill, particularly NSF in the VA-HUD bill, people may not be looking to hurt you actively, but they're also probably not looking to help you," he stated.
Palmer noted that this impact was evident by looking at where the funding went. For instance, he noted that agencies with a more Democratic constituency, such as NSF and EPA, did poorly. On the other hand, he said that agencies that have a wider support base and are more politically important, like VA and NASA, did fairly well.
Adding to this situation is the fact that science has always been a medium-level priority in Congress, Palmer pointed out. For instance, transportation and justice issues have always done better when it comes to funding than science issues. "Unless there's a real political shift of some sort that raises the visibility of science, I don't really expect that is going to change," he said.
One change that may shift the balance is a proposed restructuring of the appropriations subcommittees put forth by House Majority Leader Thomas D. DeLay (R-Texas). In his proposal, agencies with similar functions would be grouped together, thus allowing all of the science-related agencies to be assigned to the same subcommittee. This would save NSF and NASA from having to compete head-to-head with agencies like VA and HUD.
While potentially good for science funding, DeLay's proposal will have a tough time becoming reality, because the reorganization would cut the number of subcommittees from 13 to 10. This reduction would mean that three Congress members in both the House and Senate would have to give up chairmanships--power that members of Congress don't relinquish easily.
The likelihood that such a reorganization would occur, however, gained a little momentum this month when Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was named chair of the full House Appropriations Committee.
"We have a historic opportunity and a unique responsibility to reform the appropriations process and change the culture of the committee," Lewis said in a statement on Jan. 6. "I intend to lead a committee that is dedicated to fiscal restraint and committed to being an integral part of our Republican leadership's effort to rein in spending and balance the federal budget."
In any case, it appears that the budget will remain very tight for the next few years and that finding additional funds for science will be challenging. This doesn't mean, however, that scientists should shy away from being active in politics. Instead, scientists should become more familiar with how the process works and understand how to sell science to Congress.
If scientists can learn to pitch their work in terms their senators and representatives understand--particularly the economic impacts of scientific research--as opposed to the scientific details of individual research that may not mean a lot on Capitol Hill, the priority of funding for science programs just may go up.