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Long-Term Budgeting

Calls for multiyear R&D funding may gain a foothold this year

by Andrea Widener
January 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Congress hasn’t passed a budget on time since 1997, leaving R&D agencies regularly in financial limbo.a A law was passed to fund the government at 2006 levels for the remainder of fiscal 2007 on Feb. 15, 2007. b A law was passed to fund the government at 2010 levels for the remainder of fiscal 2011 on April 15, 2011. c As of Jan. 23. SOURCES: Congressional Budget Office, Library of Congress
A bar graph shows congresses delays in passing a federal budget in days since 1997. It is never zero or less. 2007 and 2011 are at 365.
Congress hasn’t passed a budget on time since 1997, leaving R&D agencies regularly in financial limbo.a A law was passed to fund the government at 2006 levels for the remainder of fiscal 2007 on Feb. 15, 2007. b A law was passed to fund the government at 2010 levels for the remainder of fiscal 2011 on April 15, 2011. c As of Jan. 23. SOURCES: Congressional Budget Office, Library of Congress

Stable, predictable science funding in the U.S. has long seemed like a dream with little chance of becoming real for federal research agencies.

And they have reason to be skeptical. Congress hasn’t passed a budget on time for more than a dozen years, and this year is no exception. The fiscal 2013 budget still hasn’t passed Congress, and the Obama Administration announced earlier this month that its 2014 proposed budget—which is to be released in the first week of February by law—will be late.

Unpredictable budgets cause profound problems for science, observers say. Science, at its core, is a long-term endeavor. From designing research projects built on incremental advances to building specialized R&D centers to training graduate students, efforts take many years.

For decades, advocacy groups have been recommending multiyear R&D budgeting and appropriations, a call that has largely been ignored. This year, however, there is hope that intransigence may change.

That’s because the recommendation now comes from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST), which includes some of the top scientists in the U.S. The council argues in a November 2012 report “Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise” that stable, predictable science funding is an important contribution to U.S. competitiveness abroad. The Department of Defense already creates a multiyear budget plan that is sent to Congress, the report points out.

In addition to the PCAST report, the America Competes Act, a law designed specifically to support U.S. competitiveness, is up for reauthorization this year. In reevaluating this law, Congress could include a plan to begin multiyear appropriations.

But advocates of multiyear budgeting still face the big hurdle of convincing Congress to give up annual budget control in exchange for stability in the science community. That trade-off might be especially hard in the midst of congressional debate involving the across-the-board budget cuts—called sequestration—set to go into effect March 1. In addition, the 2013 continuing budget resolution, which Congress uses to fund the government for short periods while it works toward a final budget, is scheduled to expire on March 27.

But multiyear budgeting doesn’t mean Congress would have less oversight power, argues Maxine L. Savitz, vice president of the National Academy of Engineering and cochair of the PCAST committee that put together the report. “You would still come up to Congress to defend your budget for that year and the next year,” she says. “You could still have oversight, and it would go a long way to stability.”

Within the Administration, National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh has been a particularly outspoken advocate for multiyear budgeting.

“We are the only developed nation that has an annual budgeting process, which ends up being subannual because of continuing resolutions,” Suresh said at the rollout of the PCAST report. “It is very difficult for us to make long-term plans with our sister agencies abroad for collaborative efforts if we cannot take a long-term perspective.”

PCAST isn’t the first to argue for a change. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended multiyear authorizations for R&D way back in 1981 as a way to improve planning, budgeting, and oversight.

More recently, the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform recommended multiyear budgeting throughout the government in a 2011 report. “The presumption underlying a multiyear budgeting process means that the budget is not merely a one-year plan to respond to short-term concerns, but rather a long-term plan that would move the federal government to a sustainable fiscal path,” it says.

In its report, PCAST argues that stable science funding is preferable to flush periods followed by years of austerity and cites two examples. The National Institutes of Health’s budget doubled from 1998 to 2003, then fell almost 12% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the next five years. NSF was tagged by the White House under the America Competes Act to have its budget double after a period of mostly flat funding from 2003 to 2008. NSF then planned for a funding boost that never materialized.

“The political process has inevitably led to an erratic, stop-and-go pattern of science funding,” the PCAST report says. “Such erratic patterns, while superior to no growth at all, cause significant disruption to what is fundamentally a long-term activity.”

Disruptions are particularly bad for large, federally funded construction projects, which—although budgeted over multiple years—often need funding at specific times to continue on schedule and on budget. Disruptions are also harmful for universities, which are trying to decide whether to build buildings, hire faculty, and admit graduate students.

The ups and downs also have consequences for academic departments. For example, chemistry departments might bring in a large class of graduate students during flush times only to find that grants aren’t available in lean years to support all of the students.

The PCAST report points to two models that Congress could replicate: the European Union and the Department of Defense’s Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).

The EU allocates its science budget on the basis of firm, seven-year research plans. It didn’t start out with seven years as the budgeting period, but it has been gradually working up to that time frame since the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to an EU official.

The current, longer budget period helps research centers and scientists understand the EU’s R&D focus and the guidelines for getting grants. It also helps signal the union’s commitment to its scientists.

For example, the EU’s science funding arm, the European Research Council, is currently negotiating a plan for the next seven-year period, 2014–20. Current proposals would increase funding for top researchers from 7 billion euros (about $9.3 billion) in the 2007–13 period to 13 billion euros (about $17.4 billion). “This is a strong signal that we are serious about retaining our best scientists and attracting others to Europe,” the official said.

A model closer to home is DOD’s FYDP, which lays out costs, data, manpower, and force structure for a large part of the agency over a six-year period.

FYDP’s six-year plan is reviewed by top DOD officials and the White House Office of Management & Budget and then submitted to Congress for reference. And although all federal R&D agencies do multiyear planning, their plans aren’t vetted by OMB or sent to Capitol Hill.

“While its more distant out-years may represent only a notional commitment, the FYDP process generally succeeds in avoiding unrealistic wish lists for near-term years in favor of a plausible, executable plan,” the PCAST report says.

Travis R. Doom, who studies DOD at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, points out that DOD science is included in FYDP planning, but it is just a small part compared with weapons system development, operation, and maintenance. “FYDP did not grow out of R&D,” he says.

Because R&D is only a small part of FYDP, Doom explains, it might be a hard sell to compare it to more basic science agencies. He adds that “the stability in DOD is not just about the money. It reflects the agency’s overall emphasis on stability.”

PCAST hasn’t had a chance to brief the new Congress on this recommendation or others in the report, but Savitz says it will. In those briefings the committee will emphasize the importance of research funding stability to the future of the country.

And if Congress isn’t quite ready to try multiyear budgeting for all agencies, maybe members could start slowly, Savitz suggests. Perhaps try just a two-year budget and appropriation, or a pilot project with one agency.

“The real hurdle,” Savitz says, “is getting the appropriations committees to be willing to give it a try.”


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