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Brighter Times For Federal R&D

Obama's first budget affirms his support for science, particularly in the areas of energy and climate change

by Government & Policy Department, C&EN Washington
May 25, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 21

The 2010 budget books released on May 7 detail the President's spending plan for the federal government.
Credit: Newscom

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has often stated that a strong science infrastructure is key to the U.S.'s future economic success. He now backs that position with a proposed fiscal 2010 budget that provides continued growth for research and development funding to $147.6 billion, a 0.4% increase over 2009.

The seemingly small size of this increase, however, can be misleading. Because of the significant one-time budget infusions that agencies got from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, federal R&D is actually in much better shape than an overall 0.4% increase might suggest. Signed into law by the President in February, ARRA provides more than $18 billion in R&D funds to be spent over the two-year period 2009–10.

Another consideration when reading the numbers in the budget—which normally is released in February but was delayed this year because of the change in Administration—is that nearly all R&D budgets saw sizable gains under an omnibus spending bill passed in March that set their 2009 budgets. This late appropriation complicated the budget picture because for half of fiscal 2009, which started on Oct. 1, 2008, most agencies were operating without a finalized budget. It also gave agencies little time to finalize current-year numbers before the 2010 budget details were unveiled.

The size of the increase aside, the 2010 budget shows solid support for key priorities like energy R&D and basic research. In this latter area, the budget plan gives hefty gains to three agencies: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. These agencies are targeted for a 10-year budget doubling under the America Competes Act, and they are now firmly back on track to meet this goal by 2016.

The following review of proposed R&D spending at the federal agencies comes with some caveats. The numbers are given mostly as budget obligations; that is, the money that agencies can contract to spend during the fiscal year. The amounts may be more or less than the agencies actually spend, or outlay, during the year.

Also, the federal budget is a complicated document with various ways of adding up programs and totals. As a result, sometimes the agency or department figures and the totals from the Office of Management & Budget are not the same and may be published in different places in different amounts. These variations are usually small and reflect alternative methods of dividing funds.

NSF. Under the President's 2010 budget request, NSF would receive $7.0 billion in 2010, up 8.5%, or $555 million, from 2009. The budget request keeps the agency on track to complete a decadal budget doubling by 2016. It does not include the $3.0 billion in ARRA funds the agency will spend in 2009 and 2010, mainly on grant proposals already in the pipeline by 2009 (C&EN, May 18, page 6).

"As global competition and global challenges both accelerate, America needs bold efforts to sustain our leadership in science and technology," NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr. said when he rolled out the agency's 2010 budget proposal. He added that "NSF leads research and education well beyond the frontier."

Under the Administration's budget request, research and related activities (R&RA) would grow by 10.6% to $5.7 billion in 2010. The largest dollar increase goes to the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS), which is slated to get $124 million, or 9.9%, more in 2010 to bring its total budget to $1.4 billion.

Within MPS, the Chemistry Division is set to get the largest dollar increase to bring its 2010 budget up to $239 million, or 12.9% more than in 2009. The Materials Research Division will also see a sizable increase of 9.5%, to raise its budget to $309 million next year.

One new area that R&RA funds will support is transformative research. According to NSF, each research division will set aside at least $2 million to fund high-risk and potentially high-payoff research. The total NSF-wide investment for 2010 in this area will be $92 million.

Two other areas of focus in R&RA in 2010 will be clean energy and climate change. For clean energy, NSF will allocate about $300 million across its divisions to support research and education programs. It will also join DOE to increase public awareness and inspire future energy scientists.

In the area of climate change, NSF will invest $197 million agency-wide on climate research. It will also establish a Climate Change Education Program, which will receive $10 million in both 2009 and 2010. This new program aims to increase public understanding and engagement; develop learning tools; inform science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education policy; and prepare a climate science workforce.

NSF will also continue its support of nanotechnology research. In 2010, the agency expects to increase its support of this area by 6.5% to $423 million. This amount includes $30 million in research on the environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotech.

The agency's 2010 budget also boosts three key programs to strengthen the U.S. workforce. To meet the President's goal of tripling the number of new fellowships awarded under the Graduate Research Fellowship Program by 2013, NSF will invest $122 million, or 6% more than in 2009, in this program. This request will support 1,654 new fellowships in 2010.

Support for the Faculty Early Career Development program—or the CAREER program—is set to see an 11.6% jump to $204 million in 2010. The five-year awards assist young faculty who teach and pursue research. NSF will also increase its support of the Advanced Technology Education program by 24.0%. This growth will bring the 2010 budget for this program, which helps academic-employer partnerships at two-year colleges, to $64 million.

NIH. The President's proposed 2010 budget for the National Institutes of Health provides an increase of only 1.5% over the 2009 budget, bringing its funding level to $30.9 billion. NIH has faced weak or declining budget growth since it completed a five-year budget doubling in 2003. As a result, 2010 will mark the seventh year that the agency's budget has failed to keep up with the biomedical inflation rate, which is estimated at 3.8% for 2009.

The overall budget numbers, however, do not reflect the true situation at NIH, because they do not include $10.4 billion in ARRA money that NIH received to spend over 2009 and 2010. The bulk of that recovery act money, $8.2 billion, will fund extramural research; $1.8 billion will be spent on infrastructure; and the remaining $400 million will go to research comparing the effectiveness of drugs and other treatments.

In the 2010 proposal, the President identified cancer research as a high priority. Of the agency's proposed budget of $30.9 billion, $6.0 billion will go to cancer research. This investment is part of a sustained, multiyear plan to double cancer research funding in the U.S. over the next eight years. The bulk of that allocation, $5.2 billion, will go to the National Cancer Institute, which leads NIH's efforts in cancer research. In 2010, the institute is slated to receive $181 million, or 3.6%, more in funding compared with 2009.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is also slated for more funding, to the tune of 3.2%, or $21 million, bringing its 2010 budget to $684 million. This increase will fund research on the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanotechnology.

The budgets for the rest of NIH's institutes and centers will remain essentially flat, with increases in the 1% range. The Office of the Director's (OD's) budget, however, will drop 5.1% to $1.2 billion. One reason for this drop in the office's 2010 budget is a lack of funding for the NIH Director's Bridge Award, a program to provide continued but limited funding to meritorious investigators who just miss the funding cutoff and have minimal support from other sources. The program is not dead, however; it will be sustained in 2010 with ARRA funds, according to the agency.

NIH will also continue to invest in its Common Fund, which is administered by OD. The budget proposal provides $8 million, or 1.5%, more in 2010 than in 2009, for a total fund budget of $549 million. The funds will support cross-cutting research such as an initiative to decipher how genes are influenced by the environment.

DEFENSE. The most R&D funding in the federal budget by far goes to the Department of Defense. The $78.9 billion proposed for fiscal 2010 is 53.5% of the entire federal R&D budget, yet it is actually 3.4%, or $2.8 billion, less than the $81.7 billion Congress appropriated for 2009.

Among DOD's R&D categories, operational systems development is the only one getting a funding increase. Development work to make major weapons systems ready for production or upgrades will receive $30.6 billion, a rise of $1.7 billion, or 5.9%, from last year.

The basic and applied research categories each got decent increases from Congress for fiscal 2009, but their allocations are reduced in the President's proposal for 2010. Basic research would receive $27 million less than appropriated for 2009, bringing its total budget to $1.8 billion, a 1.5% cut. Applied research would take a bigger hit—dropping 17.9%, or $926 million, to just over $4.2 billion. Because DOD is not included in the recovery act, it's possible Congress will again add to the department's R&D budget to keep its funding rising.

The situation is better for specific research-oriented, department-wide programs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, would see an increase of 3.8%, or $118 million, to $3.2 billion. DARPA's plans include basic research spending on biological warfare systems, materials and biological technology, and cognitive computing systems.

Spending would also rise for R&D at DOD's Chemical & Biological Defense Program, for which the President has proposed a $100 million, or 9.0%, increase to $1.2 billion. The program's total proposed 2010 budget is $1.6 billion, so 75.0% of its funding goes to research.

DHS. The Department of Homeland Security's 2010 budget request of $55.1 billion includes $45.8 billion in discretionary spending, a 6.0% increase over the current year's budget of $43.2 billion.

"Our proposed budget strengthens current efforts that are vital to our nation's security, bolsters our ability to respond to emerging and evolving threats, and enables DHS to embrace new responsibilities," DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a press conference. "This budget represents a critical investment in the protection of the American people."

The proposed spending plan expands efforts to battle terrorism, allocating $400 million to protect critical infrastructure and cyber networks from attack and $95 million to detect agents of biological warfare.

The President is also asking for $918 million to support DHS's efforts to protect the nation's physical infrastructure, including $103 million for security compliance. The department plans to use the money to hire and train more inspectors for its chemical plant site security program and to launch a new initiative to help keep ammonium nitrate, which is highly explosive, out of the hands of potential terrorists.

This year, the department will complete and issue final regulations to implement legislation Congress passed in December 2007 (H.R. 1680), which requires all ammonium nitrate facilities and purchasers to register with DHS. Fiscal 2010 funding will support the development of the required registration, tracking, and verification processes and systems, as well as the establishment of inspection and audit procedures. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer has been used as a bomb component by terrorists in a number of attacks around the world, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

For R&D activities at DHS, the Administration is seeking $1.1 billion for 2010, up $29 million, or 2.6%, from the 2009 level. Under the proposal, the Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), the primary R&D arm at DHS, receives $968 million, a 3.8%, or $36 million, increase from 2009.


The directorate's 2010 budget includes $207 million for its Chemical & Biological Division, up 3.2%, or $6 million, from 2009. The division is researching ways to counteract potential chemical and biological threats. S&T's Explosives Division, which is developing technical capabilities to detect and thwart terrorists' use of improvised explosive devices, gets a sizable 25.7% boost to $121 million in 2010.

ENERGY. Energy Secretary Steven Chu underscored his oft-repeated themes of "transformational discoveries, breakthrough science, and innovative technologies" when he announced the Department of Energy's $26.4 billion 2010 budget proposal, an increase of 0.6% from 2009.

The budget is a sharp departure from that of the Bush Administration's a year ago. For instance, Bush proposed a 7% cut in solar R&D spending, and the Obama Administration proposes a record increase of 83%; Bush proposed a 143% jump in nuclear energy R&D, and Obama seeks a 22% cut.

But overall, compared with 2009, the President's proposed budget increase in DOE's R&D and total spending appears small, less than 1%. But this is deceiving, because the budget does not reflect some $38.7 billion in ARRA funding for 2009 and 2010. Those funds are held in a separate account and spread through several programs.

Chu explained that the recovery act funds are a one-time deal. Still, they will be good for scientists.

For example, the Office of Science is proposed to receive only a modest 3.9% budget increase, which keeps it on target to double its budget by 2016. But it will receive a big jump from recovery act funds—an additional $1.6 billion split over 2009 and 2010.

Likewise, a science-related program, the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which Congress created in 2007, appears to get a small $10 million allocation in the 2010 budget, but the recovery act provides $400 million in spending over two years. The program's goals, Chu said, are to overcome "long-term, high-risk technological barriers" and to foster R&D of transformational energy-related technologies, which Chu has frequently trumpeted. The ARPA-E director, once appointed, will report directly to Chu. The program's first solicitation for projects was issued on April 27.

Another area benefiting immensely from recovery act funds is coal-related research. It is tagged for a big increase to $3.8 billion in 2010, but mostly through an ARRA allocation of $3.4 billion. Most of the funding goes to carbon capture and sequestration research and demonstration projects. More than $1 billion will go to the FutureGen gasification and sequestration demonstration project, which the Bush Administration had killed.

One of the newly budgeted programs Chu promoted during the budget rollout is the creation of eight "energy innovation hubs." The budget proposes $280 million in 2010 to establish the lab hubs, which are modeled on DOE's bioenergy research centers, one of which Chu supervised when he directed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

First-year funding for each hub would be $35 million. The amount would drop to $25 million per year in future years. Each hub would focus on a different area of energy research and be overseen by various DOE offices. R&D areas include carbon capture and storage, solar energy, the electrical grid, building design, batteries and energy storage, and making fuels from sunlight. Initial funding would be for five years, Chu said, and if the hubs are successful, funding could stretch to 10 years.

R&D for renewable energy and efficiency would also increase significantly, by 20.4% to $1.4 billion in 2010. Solar is proposed for an 82.9% boost to $320 million; R&D for efficient "green" buildings, a 69.8% jump to $238 million; wind, a 36.4% increase to $75 million; vehicle efficiency, a 22.0% gain to $333 million; and industrial efficiency research support, an 11.1% rise to $100 million.

Electrical batteries are a key energy area deserving of more support, Chu has said several times in his first few months on the job, and his budget proposal reflects that. The budget sets $2.0 billion for grants to U.S.-based manufacturers to produce batteries and related components and another $400 million to demonstrate and evaluate plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Not all energy technologies fared so well, however. Hydrogen R&D would be cut by 59.6% to $68 million, with the primary targeted area being vehicular fuel-cell research. In another shift from Bush's energy policies, Chu said it is highly unlikely that hydrogen will be deployed in vehicles in the next 10 to 15 years. He pointed to problems with the fuel cells themselves, mobile hydrogen storage, and the lack of a hydrogen distribution infrastructure. He also said that the primary source of hydrogen is natural gas, a carbon-based and valuable feedstock and fuel.

Instead, Chu said, DOE will continue developing stationary fuel cells and will focus its vehicular research on the development of advanced batteries for electric vehicles and the next generation of biofuels for internal combustion engines. "These are the best places to put our money," he said.

The Administration's budget also reflects its decision to phase out the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. DOE will instead look to an expert panel to help guide the department's future nuclear waste decisions. But, Chu said, "we are committed to restarting nuclear energy. We know more than we did 30 years ago, and conditions have changed, and we want a unified waste-handling plan."

The 2010 budget also proposes $192 million to study the nuclear fuel cycle, a sharp drop from the Bush Administration's proposal. Chu noted that the department will move ahead with R&D in reprocessing of spent fuel; however, it is searching for a process that is proliferation resistant and economically viable.

For nuclear weapons and nonproliferation activities, which make up $9.9 billion of DOE's overall budget, the proposal was flat for weapons at $6.3 billion but allowed a 30%-plus increase for nonproliferation activities.

NASA. President Obama's budget requests a 5.1% boost in the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's budget. This increase brings the agency's 2010 budget to $18.7 billion, or just over $900 million more than in 2009. The agency will also have $1.0 billion in additional funds to work with from ARRA, which are being spent in 2009 and 2010.

NASA's proposed budget will continue to support global climate-change research and space exploration and operation, as well as aeronautics research.

Some $1.4 billion will go to Earth science, up 1.8% from 2009. This money, along with a portion of ARRA funds, will support ongoing and new missions involving earth science research satellites and airborne sensors.

For space exploration and operation, the budget provides $3.2 billion to fund the six space shuttle missions scheduled in 2010, after which time the shuttle is set to retire. The shuttle missions ensure the completion of the International Space Station, which is expected to be fully crewed at six people this month.

On the exploration side, the President's budget provides increases to continue development of space shuttle replacement vehicles. In conjunction with the budget release, however, the Administration announced plans for a independent review of the agency's human spaceflight activities (C&EN, May 18, page 32). The results of this study, which will look at development programs and possible alternatives, are expected by late summer and may lead to adjustments in allocations within the 2010 budget proposal, NASA officials note.

COMMERCE. R&D at the Department of Commerce is primarily performed by two agencies: the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both are set to see budget increases in 2010.

NIST is one of the agencies targeted by the America Competes Act to double its research budget by 2016. For fiscal 2010, the President has proposed a budget of $846 million, an increase of $27 million, or 3.3%, over the 2009 appropriation. Much of this increase goes to NIST's core scientific and technical laboratory services. Among the programs that would get substantial increases are the chemical sciences lab, where the budget would rise $10 million to $61 million in 2010, an 18.8% rise; and the materials science lab, which is slated for an increase of $11 million to $50 million, a 26.6% jump.

Some of NIST's priority investments next year are for cross-cutting research: $7 million to develop methods and standards for measuring greenhouse gas emissions at sources and sinks, $7 million to develop methods for measuring and designing highly energy-efficient buildings, $3 million to establish an interagency program on health and safety of nanomaterials, and $8 million to help develop and manufacture next-generation solar energy technologies.

Also set to see gains in 2010 are two NIST-managed programs that support industrial innovation. The Technology Innovation Program provides cost-sharing grants to small- and medium-sized companies for high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need. Its proposed 2010 budget is $70 million, a $5 million, or 7.5%, increase from 2009. The Manufacturing Extension Partnership program gives technical and business assistance to small manufacturers. For this program, the President has proposed a large increase of $15 million, or 13.4%, to bring its total budget to $125 million in 2010.


Absent from consideration in the 2010 budget is the allocation NIST received under ARRA this year. The agency got $580 million to invest in projects, grants, scientific equipment, and research fellowships. This amount is not included in the agency's 2010 budget request.

NIST's plans for spending its recovery act money over the next two years include, in part, $119 million for high-value research equipment to be purchased through a competitive award process, $35 million for competitive research grants on NIST priority areas, $22 million to expand and extend its postdoctoral fellowship program, $20 million to go to one or more organizations to provide new science and engineering fellowships, and $69 million to fund a precision measurement lab at NIST's site in Boulder, Colo.

NOAA's budget would also get a boost in the President's proposal, from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $4.5 billion in 2010, a 2.5% increase. A major priority next year is to increase the capabilities of the U.S. satellite systems that monitor environmental and weather data; this activity is slated to get $272 million in additional funds. NOAA is also requesting $4 million to begin the collection of elevation data to help protect the public from future coastal hazards and flooding.

Most of NOAA's research is done through its Office of Oceanic & Atmospheric Research. This office is requesting $405 million for 2010, a $4 million, or 1.0%, decrease from the fiscal 2009 appropriation. NOAA budget documents say spending cuts will be achieved by termination of a number of 2009 projects and a shift in priorities. For example, the climate research area is seeking a $13 million increase in funds to $210 million, a 6.8% rise, but the office's Ocean, Coastal & Great Lakes Division is slated for a $15 million cut to $107 million, a 12.5% decrease.

Some of the increases in climate research include an additional $5 million for the national drought information system to implement an early-warning mechanism for droughts, $4 million in new funds for research to understand the global impacts of ocean acidification, and $5 million in new funds for various improvements in weather-forecasting capabilities.

AGRICULTURE. Although the Department of Agriculture's overall 2010 budget is slated to increase by $10 billion, or 8.1%, compared with 2009, for a total of $134 billion in discretionary and mandatory spending, funding for agricultural research continues to decline.

Four agencies within USDA have leadership responsibility over agricultural research: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA, formerly the Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the Economic Research Service (ERS).

ARS, which conducts in-house research in natural and biological sciences, will see its 2010 budget decrease by $34 million, or 2.8%, compared with 2009. About $40 million in congressional earmarks will be discontinued, with the money redirected to high-priority areas such as renewable energy and climate-change research. ARS will receive an extra $11 million to develop new feedstocks with traits for more efficient conversion to biofuels, more than $1 million for research to identify genes for improving the health and productivity of food animals, $13 million for research to prevent childhood obesity, and $9 million to determine the risks of climate change on agriculture.

NIFA, which partners with academia in extramural research, will see a 2.9% drop in 2010. NIFA has responsibility over USDA's primary competitive research grants program called the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative, funding for which remains flat at $202 million in 2010.

NASS, on the other hand, will receive a 6.6% increase in 2010. The additional funds include $2 million to establish data on key aspects of bioenergy production and use. And $6 million will go to restoring data on the use of agricultural chemicals on major row crops, which NASS stopped collecting in 2008 because of a lack of resources.

USDA's 2010 budget also includes a 2.5% increase for ERS, the agency responsible for providing economic and other social science information on agriculture, food, the environment, and rural development. In particular, $2 million will support research on the economics of and policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

EPA. For R&D at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, the President has asked Congress for $842 million, a rise of 6.6% over 2009. R&D represents 8.0% of the agency's $10.5 billion budget request for 2010.

EPA's overall budget of $10.5 billion marks a record level of funding for the agency, up 38.2% from the $7.6 billion it received for 2009. In recent years under the Bush Administration, the agency's budget had declined from a 2004 high of $8.4 billion. Under the 2010 budget, the Administration plans to boost funding of several key areas of EPA research with strong links to the chemical enterprise.

One effort that would get a big bump-up in dollars involves a database of the agency's expert judgments on how much exposure to a particular chemical is safe. EPA struggles to keep information current on more than 500 individual chemicals in the database, called the Integrated Risk Information System. The agency also has had trouble expanding the database with assessments of additional substances. The agency finished only nine chemical assessments in the past three years, the Government Accountability Office has reported (C&EN, Feb. 2, page 23).

Obama's budget plan would provide $29 million for the database and for other health hazard assessments of the agency. This is $5 million, or about 21%, more than the agency got for these activities in 2009. The additional money will improve the database by increasing the number of new assessments and updates of existing entries, according to EPA budget documents.

Agency efforts to screen new and existing industrial chemicals for health and environmental effects would get a 52.6% increase under Obama's 2010 request. The President is asking Congress for $15 million in 2010 for these activities, up from $10 million in 2009.

The agency's computational toxicology efforts would get $19.6 million under the President's budget plan, an almost 30% increase over 2009. This work, which relies on high-throughput testing methods initially developed for pharmaceutical discovery, aims to develop techniques to screen thousands of chemicals for multiple health effects. In comparison, computational toxicology work got $15 million in 2009 funding.

Meanwhile, biofuels research would rise dramatically from a mere $600,000 in 2009 to $6 million in 2010—an order of magnitude higher. The extra money would fund studies to flesh out the trade-offs associated with the production and use of biofuels, especially those involving greenhouse gas emissions.

THE BUDGET PROCESS. The fiscal 2010 budget now goes to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, where it is divided into several appropriations bills. Various committees will hold hearings on each bill, and legislation that sets the levels of spending for all federal departments and agencies must clear the House and Senate. As a result of this process, numbers approved by Congress may be very different from those originally proposed by the Administration. The whole process is supposed to be completed and the bills signed by the President by Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2009.


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