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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Too Much Spin Blurs Truth About Budget

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Getting information from the Administration is not easy. Getting the truth, it turns out, is even harder. The difficulties start at the top-in the last thirty years, four presidents have resorted to stonewalling. Two of them did it successfully. One failed and resigned. The jury is out still out on the fourth.

In the 1970s Richard Nixon did it with Watergate and bombed. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan did it with Iran-Contra and survived. And in the 1990s Bill Clinton did it with the White House Travel Office, Whitewater and liaisons with Gennifer, Paula and Monica. He, too, survived, but just barely. Now, it's George W. Bush's turn. In the first year of his presidency, he and his administration are off to a good start. Only time will tell whether they make it.

Months ago, Congress requested that the Administration release the names of the corporate executives who met with the Cheney Energy Task Force. The request met with silence, and now the General Accounting Office has filed suit against the White House. The odds are the case will wind up in the Supreme Court, probably several years from now. It's anybody's guess how the court that chose the president will rule.

Last month, Congress requested that Governor Tom Ridge testify on how he plans to direct the $38 billion that the Office of Homeland Security purportedly has under its control. After all, $38 billion is a pretty big number. Ridge has refused, saying that he is not a Cabinet officer. Now Congress is considering whether to endow him with Cabinet status and compel him to appear.

Last fall, the House Science Committee requested that National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell explain how NSF decides on Major Research Equipment projects and how it sets priorities for them. To date, she has not produced the information. And now the Committee is considering other means to obtain it.

Several months ago, the Defense Department established the Office of Strategic Influence. Its reported role was to plant false stories in the media, with the objective of influencing opinion abroad. Of course, the report itself could have been false, given the office's goal of spreading misinformation. But in early March, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld thought better of his decision and shut the office doors. Or so he said.

But stanching the flow of misinformation, it seems, is not on the agenda of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). On February 4, amidst much ballyhoo, White House Science Advisor John Marburger announced that the Bush Administration's budget request for Fiscal Year 2003 had the best R&D numbers offered by any president in the history of the United States, totaling more than $111 billion.

What he didn't say was that all the increases were loaded into two accounts: research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and development, testing and evaluation at the Defense Department. Back out those programs, and the rest of the R&D budget would be flat or declining.

Budget Director Mitch Daniels, who singled out the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the only stellar agency or department across the broad swath of federal activities, said that the NSF was being rewarded for its good deeds and good management with a five percent increase - a cosmic number in tough times. What he didn't say was that all but 1.5 percent was the result of a transfer of activities from other agencies.

In an era when NIH's annual increases have exceeded NSF's entire budget, restoring balance to the science portfolio is one of the prime motivators for boosting the Foundation's budget. But the Bush plan actually calls for cutting the physical sciences at NSF while increasing its spending on biology. Depending on how you do the accounting, the life sciences across the federal budget would soak up between fifty-five and sixty cents of every research dollar.

Not too long ago, Marburger told the physical science community that its turn would come next year, now that the five-year doubling of the NIH budget has been completed. But two weeks later, he reversed course during his testimony before the House Science Committee. Under questioning about portfolio balance, he said that research budgets should be based on the complexity of the science, and, in his view, biology was still underfunded. A stunned Vern Ehlers (R-MI), who is one of two physicists in Congress, noted that if complexity were the sole criterion, then astrophysics should walk off with the lion's share.

You might chalk up Marburger's response to misspeaking - Washington lingo for a bigtime goof - under fire. But he repeated his statement a few days later in a speech at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Will the real Marburger please stand up.

But the prize for budget misinformation must go to NASA's Space Science program, which OMB said would climb by about a third. Now that's a supernova in this budget year. What OMB didn't say was that Space Science would have to absorb the cost of all space shuttle launches associated with science. (It won't have to pick up the cost of Space Station launches, since there is no science left in that program.) To see how pernicious the accounting is, consider that the latest Hubble launch would have chewed up almost 20 percent of this year's Space Science budget.

As any child who has played with a top knows, when the spinning stops, the object falls. With this year's budget now being spun at a furious pace, it's a good bet this law will catch up to the politicians too.


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