By Michael Lucibella
Advocates for science are nervous about the uncertain future of science research funding following the 2010 midterm elections. Although experts admit that the future is far from certain, supporters of federal science funding have expressed concern that many of the new members of the House of Representatives and the new Republican leadership’s “Pledge to America” will favor budget cuts over support for research.
Experts also point out, however, that a contentious debate over science funding is relatively new to Congress.
“Science funding in general has been a pretty non-partisan topic. Both sides seem to see the benefit of R&D investment,” said Patrick Clemins director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Historically, funding for basic research has not been among the most partisan issues. Arguably the differences that have emerged over time are that Republicans tend to favor defense-related research while Democrats favor energy and environmental research. Active support for science research generally comes from those representing individual districts that have large research facilities such as major universities, a high tech industry, or a government lab.
“I don’t think you can say one party or the other is stronger, it depends on the personalities and the leadership. In the case of John Boehner, I don’t think he is [particularly strong on science],” said Michael Lubell, director of public affairs of the American Physical Society. Lubell added that “the biggest loss as far as I’m concerned is Vern Ehlers,” referring to the former physicist and long time Republican congressman from Michigan who retired before the elections (see photo in the October APS News
Representative and physicist Bill Foster (D-IL) lost his seat in November’s election, while physicist Rush Holt (D-NJ) narrowly retained his.
Experts expressed concern that many of the freshmen congressmen ran on the platform of shrinking government spending, and science funding is often an easy target for cuts.
Initial fears that a 2011 budget wouldn’t be passed before the next congress have been somewhat allayed as the Democratic leadership has pledged to push through next year’s budget during the lame duck session. Without a budget, federal agencies could be funded through a continuing resolution that would keep most funding at 2010 levels, effectively shrinking the budget because of inflation.
“It’s really unclear right now. The Republicans came to power on the platform of budget cuts, but it looks like it won’t happen in 2011,” said Clemins.
President Obama reiterated in a speech the day after the November elections that funding for science research and education are top priorities and he would resist cuts in those areas. The president’s budget request for 2011 includes modest increases to science research funding in various federal research departments. The House and Senate versions generally mirror the president’s requests for increases except in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, where the House version zeroes out the increase, and the senate cuts the requested 3.3 percent increase to 1.5 percent.
However storm clouds for science and science funding may be gathering on the horizon, warn experts.
“During the campaign the presumed Speaker of the House [Boehner] was very adamant on rolling back spending,” said APS advocacy coordinator and science education specialist Kris Larsen. He added that, in August, Boehner campaigned on cutting government spending to 2008 levels. This would mean a significant cut to science research, which has enjoyed an additional boost in the past two years.
Before the election the president sent out a memo to non-defense related agencies calling on them to cut their budget requests by at least 5 percent in 2012.
“Discretionary funding is going to take a hit. It’s going to get cut across the board is my guess,” Larsen said, “My guess is that the NIH will be a little more insulated than the basic physical sciences. I think physics is definitely going to be in trouble. Anything related to earth science, anything painted with climate change is going to face difficulties.”
Like much in Congress, the support of science funding has become more polarized in recent years. Earlier this year the debate over the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes funding for science and technology research, turned strongly partisan, with nearly all Republicans voting against it, despite bipartisan support in 2007. During the debate, presumptive chair of the House science and technology committee Ralph Hall (R-Texas) attempted to scuttle the legislation by inserting a “poison pill” amendment calling for the firing of federal research employees that look at pornography at work.
“Ralph Hall has been a relatively good supporter in the past,” said Larsen, “[but] he didn’t come through this year with the COMPETES vote.”
Should the subject of science funding continue to become more partisan, Lubell warns that the House science and technology committee could also shift its focus towards investigation and oversight of past science funding.
“The real activity in the House is going to be on oversight, at least as far as science is concerned,” said Lubell, predicting that the science and technology committee will likely hold “a series of hearings questioning the use of federal funds, and calling for justification for the support of science that doesn’t have a specific relevance other than knowledge.”