APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Budget Bombs! Somber outlook for research funding

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Storm flags began flying last February when President Bush released his Budget Blueprint. Although short on specifics, the Administration's first funding go-round set a somber tone for a community that had its spirits buoyed last year, when the NSF and the DOE's Office of Science received impressive increases.

For Fiscal Year 2002, however, the Bush Blueprint called for reductions in the research accounts for DOE, NASA and NSF, which D. Allan Bromley, science advisor to former President Bush, strongly criticized in a March 9 New York Times Op-Ed (reprinted in last month's APS News). With the Office of Science and Technology Policy a virtual tomb and no science patron on the White House scene, only the National Institutes of Health emerged with a strong budgetary guarantee.

On April 5, the Senate reset priorities. Later that day, President Bush again dramatized his commitment to biomedical research in remarks before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, when he said that his budget would finish the job of doubling NIH by 2003. But then he added, emphatically, "Basic research gets big increases too."

I nearly uncorked a bottle of Moët. But it would have been premature. When the presidential budget hit the streets four days later, his words rang terribly hollow.

Should Congress follow through on his plan, physics could suffer a decline worthy of the recent drop in the Dow. Here's how I read the numbers.

At NSF, one of the few bright spots is science education, a Bush priority, which would jump 11.0 percent. But elsewhere, the picture is pretty grim. Research and Related Activities would fall 0.5 percent, with Physics, aside from Frontiers Centers and facilities operations, suffering a 9.8 percent drop. For Materials Research, the corresponding cut would be 4.5 percent. And, since the Administration zeroes out new construction, Major Research Equipment would decline 20.6 percent.

The DOE budget is only marginally better. Overall, the Office of Science would get a 0.1 percent increase, amounting to $4.4 million. But increases in Program Direction would chew up $17.5 million, and Safeguards and Security would devour $13.8 million more, leaving the other programs to make up the difference. Biological and Environmental Research, a perennial recipient of congressional pork, would give back $39.5 million, allowing the Spallation Neutron Source to proceed on course with a $13.4 million increase.

All other major DOE science programs would be virtually flat-funded. But many of them could come under increasing pressure when DOE modifies its Energy Supply and Defense Programs requests, pending the report of Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force. Both of these activities are likely to see increases, and the Office of Management and Budget has said that it will not submit a supplemental request.

The DOE budget also projects a 5.7 percent decline in Environmental Management, but to achieve the savings, the Department would have to rewrite tripartite cleanup agreements and in some cases get judges to vacate court orders.

These uncertainties leave the science programs in limbo. But if current funding holds, High Energy Physics would grow $4.1 million, with SLAC and Fermilab operations rising $20 million and LHC construction declining $9.9 million. And university research would give back $5.6 million or 5.0 percent.

In Nuclear Physics, which remains flat, support for RHIC would rise by $1 million, but the scant 0.9 percent increase would force Brookhaven to curtail its running schedule by more than 25 percent. University research would be held constant, except for heavy ion physics, which would decline $500 thousand or 4.2 percent.

Apart from the SNS, Basic Energy Sciences, as well as Fusion Energy Sciences, would have to live within budgets frozen at the FY 2001 levels. But as Secretary Spencer Abraham noted, his vociferous support for science could deliver no more, given the White House cap on discretionary spending.

Action now shifts to Capitol Hill, where science enjoys considerable support. Drawing on Bromley's critique of the presidential Blueprint, Republicans in both Houses have enlisted the support of Democrats in calling for 15 percent increases for DOE, NASA and NSF science.

Reversing the Administration's proposed cuts depends upon the science community. At the APS March Meeting, physicists sent more than 900 letters to members of Congress. But given the climate, thousands more will be necessary to get the job done.



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