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Reaching For R&D Recovery

Grim federal funding outlook dominates discussion at AAAS policy meeting

by Andrea Widener
May 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 21

It’s no secret that the federal R&D picture is bad this year. But many people attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual forum on science and technology policy in early May were still surprised to hear the actual numbers.

“We are looking at a 17% drop in [overall R&D funding over] the last three years,” said Matt Hourihan, director of AAAS’s R&D Budget & Policy Program. “It’s the largest drop we’ve seen in over 40 years, since the end of the space race. So this is absolutely uncharted territory that we are in today.”

That decrease results from an austere 2013 budget pared by the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, which kicked in on March 1 and affects every part of the science budget. Federal R&D spending in 2013 totals $133.2 billion, down 6.5% from 2012. The government’s largest R&D supporter, the Department of Defense, has been hit hard. DOD had its share of the federal R&D portfolio dip below 50% “for the first time in recent memory,” Hourihan said.

The tight budget is forcing those both inside and outside the government to reconsider the role of federal spending in funding science—and to search for other ways to get support, speakers said.

“One of the things I find encouraging is that the private sector clearly understands the importance of science, technology, and innovation in their economic interests, as well as the country’s,” John P. Holdren, the presidential science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, said at the two-day conference.

The private sector is, in many cases, stepping up with increased investment in R&D and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, Holdren said.

But if the federal funding picture doesn’t change, the U.S. risks falling behind other countries, which are spending a growing percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP) on science, observers say. In 2013, U.S. R&D spending fell below 0.8% of its GDP—the lowest level since at least World War II, Hourihan said. Meanwhile, there are few signs that Congress and the White House will be able to work together to reverse the trend.

Sequestration is further complicating the budget picture. Although President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal supports science, it assumes that his Administration can work with Congress to roll back cuts from sequestration. Those cuts will be imposed each year for a decade unless the Budget Control Act of 2011 is changed, something unlikely to happen in this political climate.

The President’s 2014 budget proposal also assumes that the law’s decadelong caps on discretionary spending—which includes science spending—will be eliminated. The cap for the overall base discretionary spending in 2014 is $967 billion including sequestration, whereas the President’s budget proposal totals $1.16 trillion. If Congress doesn’t roll back the cap for next year, it will have to make major cuts to the President’s budget. How such cuts are made will tell people “whether science has hit a speed bump or has crossed over the fiscal cliff into the austerity valley,” Hourihan said.

The worry that this bad state of science funding could go on for decades is what has outsiders stepping in, both to encourage politicians to restore research funding and to find alternatives if that doesn’t happen.

An initiative rolled out during the forum illustrates how some groups are thinking about filling funding shortfalls. The idea comes from a group of seven philanthropic foundations that are coming together to encourage more support of basic science.

The Coalition of Foundations for Science includes the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, The Kavli Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the W. M. Keck Foundation, Research Corporation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Simons Foundation. The group’s goal is to increase funding of basic R&D by the philanthropic sector over the next decade, according to Robert Conn, director of The Kavli Foundation. Currently, he said, about 5% of annual philanthropic spending in the U.S. goes to basic R&D—approximately $2 billion. The coalition’s aim is to double that share over 10 years to 10%.

Conn said the need to find more philanthropic support for basic science became evident about 18 months ago, as the economy struggled to recover. “We could see that this was not a normal recovery, and the country was likely to face these downturned conditions for a decade or more,” he said. “That has proven to be true.”

The coalition will challenge fellow foundations to examine their core missions and think about what tools and technologies they use that came out of basic science research. “Almost everything has an aspect of it that is built on the shoulders of a fundamental discovery,” he said.

The coalition will then encourage the groups to commit to spending a percentage of their annual outlay supporting work that could lead to the next important discovery. For example, if a foundation’s mission is to protect the environment, it might opt to support basic research in chemistry or geology. Conn expects much of the funding will end up supporting U.S. universities.

Basic science can be a risky investment because the outcome is never certain. But funding it is a particularly good fit for wealthy donors who create foundations because “more than most people, they know the role of risk,” Conn explained. “It is almost as if there is a predisposition in the philanthropic community to understand and be willing to deal with risk and take risks.”

Conn said the coalition’s founding is not related to the recent political troubles plaguing Congress and the White House. But “I think everyone is concerned about the difficulty our government is having in making collective decisions,” he added.

Meeting attendees were also worried about congressional scrutiny of federally funded, peer-reviewed research. At the meeting, Holdren talked at length about potential legislation that takes aim at peer-reviewed grants at the National Science Foundation.

The attack comes in the form of a draft bill from Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee. The draft measure would require the NSF director to affirm three new criteria for every research grant: that the project is in the interests of the U.S., that it addresses problems of the “utmost importance to society at large,” and that it doesn’t duplicate other work at NSF or other federal agencies (C&EN, May 6, page 8). Such criteria would make basic research, which often doesn’t have a specific application, less likely to be funded.

Holdren pointed out that many of the most important scientific discoveries, such as the laser, would never have met the criteria laid out in Smith’s draft measure. That’s because such discoveries resulted from curiosity-driven research rather than work designed to yield a specific outcome.

“It makes no sense at all to confine taxpayer support to those projects for which a likely direct contribution to the national interest can be identified in advance,” he said. “Unless, of course, the national interest is defined to include expanding the boundaries of knowledge, which would be fine with me but is not, I think, the intention of Congress.”

Earlier this month, three former NSF directors joined three former heads of the National Science Board—the agency’s oversight body—in writing a letter to Smith asking him to drop the legislation. The letter says the additional requirements laid out in the measure would have a “chilling and detrimental impact” on NSF’s peer review process. It might also deter the 60,000 scientists who voluntarily review grants from participating. Rather than improving the quality of research, it would do just the opposite, the letter states.

In addition, the letter asks Smith to rescind the committee’s request to NSF for information on five social science grants, one of which deals with animal pictures in National Geographic and another with global social interactions.

Holdren said the proposed additional layer of review is akin to adding Congress as peer reviewers and would result in a more risk-averse funding model. It’s important to invest in a wide range of projects, he said, because it’s impossible to predict whether a research project will succeed or fail.

“If you don’t end up funding some failures, you don’t end up funding anything interesting.”


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