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Inside the Beltway

Mandatory Science Spending: What’s That?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

A week before President Obama released his budget request for the coming fiscal year, the White House leaked word that his plan would include mandatory spending for science. My first reaction was, “Huh?”

By the time the Administration rolled out the budget on February 9, I had reached the conclusion that the plan was pretty much a gimmick. Boxed in by the two-year budget accord he had agreed to last fall with congressional Republicans, the president wanted to make a statement about urgent needs for American science.

He knew that Congress would never agree to put any portion of science spending on a par with mandatory programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. These programs are funded by their own special laws, outside and untouchable by the normal annual appropriations process. He was simply setting down a marker and leaving the nuts and bolts of negotiations over science spending for a future president at a future date.

The science budget roll-out, which the White House held at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, confirmed my supposition. In response to a question from Science journalist Jeffrey Mervis, President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, and OSTP analyst Kei Koizumi indicated that the president tried to circumvent the sequestration budget caps by including a supplemental budget that expanded research support. It didn't work, so this year Koizumi said the administration decided to try something different.

I followed up Mervis’s question by asking Holdren one of my own: “What strategy had the White House cooked up to convince Congress that mandatory science spending made sense.” I got the same answer Jeff had received moments earlier.

It was clear there was no rationale, strategy or play plan. Like the famed Hail Mary pass in football, the mandatory request was little more than a wild, last ditch effort as the White House game clock was ticking down.

But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced there is a serious rationale for assigning a small portion of the science budget to the mandatory spending category.

As I’ve written many times before, there is ample evidence that science is the underpinning of the 21st century American economy. Those economists who have studied the relationship between research and development and growth of the gross domestic product have estimated that at least 50 percent and perhaps as much as 70 percent of GDP increases come from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

There is also ample evidence that U.S. innovation has begun to lag the performance of other developed nations. The 2015 Global Innovation Index compiled by the world business school INSEAD, in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organization known as WIPO and Cornell University, ranks the United States 5th. And the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), in its 2016 report, “Contributors and Detractors: Ranking Countries’ Impact on Global Innovation,” places the U.S. 10th, in part because of very tepid growth in government support of R&D and weak numbers in STEM college graduates.

A robust innovation enterprise that relies on government support for long-term research needs funding that not only is sufficient but also reliable. For much of the last two decades, gridlock and hyper-partisanship have stymied the appropriations process to the point where last-minute patchwork “continuing resolutions” have become more the rule than the exception.

The annual ritual of appropriations stalemates wreaks havoc with many federal programs, but its effect on science activities is particularly pernicious. Continuing resolutions inject uncertainties into agency planning and execution, prohibit the start of new projects, and send a strong message to young scientists that the United States might not be the ideal place for pursuing a scientific career.

A quarter of a century ago, our nation might have been able to weather such annual budget disruptions, but today there are too many nations that can take advantage of our inability to keep our scientific engine well lubricated and well fueled.

Using mandatory accounts to support a small portion of the federal research budget could provide a buffer against the damaging effects of continuing resolutions that often extend for three months or more and against shorter-term government shutdowns that result in furloughs or layoffs at national laboratories and damage to critical scientific infrastructure.

How large the mandatory spending crutch should be is a matter for serious analysis and debate. But if a typical continuing resolution lasts three months, and if a quarter to a half of federally supported scientific activities are jeopardized during that period, mandatory accounts covering five to ten percent of the federal scientific budget would suffice.

Although I haven’t spoken much to Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) since his retirement from the Senate in 2009, I think he would find the proposition intriguing, based on conversations we had while he was still in office. Domenici was one of the Senate’s gurus on budgets, appropriations, and energy policy. And as a staunch advocate for science he used to bemoan the problems that the annual appropriations process created for research – and that was in the days when continuing resolutions were still not the norm.

President Obama might have proposed mandatory spending as a gimmick, but in reality he has opened the door to a discussion on something far more substantive.

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