Outlook uneasy for federal science support

July 1, 2004
iven the current unsettled nature of the nation's economy, companies in the advanced-technology industries are going to have to do some serious scouting if they hope to maintain a healthy federal government business.

By John Rhea

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WASHINGTON — Given the current unsettled nature of the nation's economy, companies in the advanced-technology industries are going to have to do some serious scouting if they hope to maintain a healthy federal government business.

This means seeking opportunities outside the traditional inside-the-Beltway sources of funding, the Department of Defense, and NASA, to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

One place to begin looking is the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The science activities of this agency are highlighted in a report issued by the House Science Committee earlier this year on the science and technology portion of the federal budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins Oct. 1.

"Most of the requested R&D funding for DHS ($1.04 billion is for the S&T [Science and Technology] Directorate, which receives a 14 percent increase," the report notes.

"A significant part of the increase is directed toward operational expansion of the BioWatch system, which is designed to monitor major cities for biological agents," the report adds. "Funding for more basic research programs does not fare as well."

As the Bush administration's budget request proceeds through the authorization and appropriation process, however, there appears to be an emerging bipartisan concern that important programs will suffer from lack of funding.

"It's pretty obvious, it won't be a bed of roses," commented Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, regarding the outlook for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, agreed, calling physical science research "one of the best and most appropriate investments" that the government can make.

"The Department of Energy is the leading source of federal investment for R&D facilities and fundamental research in the physical sciences," said the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Md., in its analysis of the administration's science request. "Yet investment in the department's R&D has declined in constant dollars from $11.2 billion in 1980 to $7.7 billion in 2001. As a percentage of GDP [gross domestic product], total federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering has been cut roughly in half since 1970."

Another Republican leader, U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, was even more critical of the administration's science priorities as his committee began to tackle the 2005 request. "It's impossible to seriously view this as a good budget for science," he said, and other committee members, regardless of party affiliation, shared his view. Ranking minority member U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said the request demonstrated a "lack of insight" and was "inadequate."

In its analysis of the Administration's request, the committee called proposed funding of basic research "insufficient," adding "funding short-term development at the expense of longer-term basic and applied research is not advisable, and neglects those portions of R&D where government support is most critical."

This is the heart of the issue: government funding for research that individual companies cannot afford to do themselves because of the excessive up-front costs and long wait for a payoff. Moreover, there's the age-old conflict between defense and nondefense R&D support, and the House Science Committee also addressed that issue.

The committee's report noted that at $69 billion and $29 billion, respectively, the R&D budgets of DOD and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) account for 75 percent of the total R&D budget, including 93 percent of the FY 05 increases. "While fully acknowledging the important contributions of these agencies, the committee urges that similar attention be given to other important R&D agencies, such as NSF [National Science Foundation], DOE [Department of Energy', and NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology]," the report said.

There's nothing new about this undercurrent of grumbling concerning federal support of science. Senators and representatives have long promoted the programs of their constituents in opposition to the executive branch, which ultimately has to sort out the priorities.

What is new is the increasing domination of priorities by the escalating war on terrorism. Perhaps the most revealing justification for the Administration's position came from John Marburger, director of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Testifying before Boehlert's committee, Marburger spelled out the official line this way: "This administration understands that science and technology are major drivers of economic growth and important for securing the homeland and winning the war on terrorism."

No surprises here. Marburger's message was clear: the advanced-technology industries will be put on short rations for the duration of these troubled times. With these caveats in mind, advanced-technology industries could look for opportunities outside their traditional customer base where their technical competence can give them an edge.

Here's a possibility: NIH's new National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Established in December 2000, NIBIB's funding has grown from $68.9 million in 2001 to $288.8 million in the current year, and to $297.7 million under the new budget proposal. This funding is to support research in biomedical imaging and bioengineering and seeks funding for 24 research centers and 28 other research grants.

While the level of funding for NIBIB may be small peanuts compared to the multibillion-dollar weapons programs of DOD, the attractive feature of programs like this is that they're moving in the right direction for the industries that hope to become participants.

There have to be other programs like this scattered around inside the federal bureaucracy. The trick is to start now to look for them while there's still time.

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