The Federal Budget, Part One: Physical Science Research and Development Funding for Fiscal Year 2018—a Call to Action

By Cherry Murray

Note: this article is based on a presentation given to the 2017 APS April Meeting in Washington, D.C. in January 2017, with an added mid-August update.

When I gave a presentation at the 2017 APS “April” Meeting last January, I had just completed my appointment as the Director of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which as the APS News readership knows is the largest funder of physical science research in the federal government.

I hadn’t actually paid a lot of attention to the entire federal budget until I became a federal employee, and then I found it to be quite sobering.

In this Back Page article spread across two issues of APS News, I will first, in this Part One, cover some historical trends in U.S. research and development (R&D) funding, contrasted with that of some other nations, and then provide an update on the administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year (FY18) and a call to the physics community to respond.

In Part Two, in the October issue, I will give a short tutorial on the federal budget as a whole and where R&D fits into it, and I hope to have an update on the congressional budget marks for FY18.

The process and timeline by which the U.S. federal budget is built

The U.S. federal government is normally working on three annual budgets simultaneously. The budget for FY17, from October 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017, is being executed by agencies now. Let’s call that budget the FY budget.

At the same time, the FY+1 budget is under consideration by Congress; that budget is (normally) submitted to congress by the president during the first week in February of FY, i.e., four months after the start of FY and eight months prior to the start of FY+1. Congress must assess this budget, usually through hearings and testimony, and enact 12 separate appropriations for the FY+1 budget.

Because of the turnover in the presidential administration last January, submission to Congress of the president’s FY18 proposed budget was delayed until late May, and congressional budget hearings are just now being held for FY18 as I write this in late June.

Concurrent with congressional consideration of the FY+1 budget, the administration is formulating the FY+2 budget, a process led by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and negotiated separately with each agency; the formulation process can take as long as one year prior to the submission to Congress.

Trends in Federal Spending on Research and Development

Why do governments fund research and development? It is not because, as we all know, science is beautiful.

In 1945, after the major R&D effort that arguably won the war, Vannevar Bush, the first science advisor to the president, in his report Science: The Great Frontier made the case for federal government support of research. His argument was that industry does applied research and development, while the federal government must invest in basic research broadly underpinning both national security and the economy.

The U.S. funds federal R&D to ensure national security, innovation, and economic competitiveness — and over the years, improvements in health and food supply and improvements in the environment have been added as well. But the first three are by far the major reasons.

Federal investment in R&D since the 1950s has been a major contributor to the U.S. military and economic global position; but sustaining that global position is no longer a given.

A U.S. National Academies committee on which I served in 2007 (and which issued the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report) pointed out that federal R&D, especially in fundamental research, underpins technology and economic development in the U.S. Economists have shown that 85% of our economic growth is due to investment in R&D. Our committee and many others have worried about how the U.S. is losing its international lead in science and technology, how quickly that can happen, and how hard it would be to regain.

Relevant to physical science research is the “discretionary” spending part of the federal budget, a yearly budget process for about a third of the entire budget of $3.7 trillion through the appropriations committees of Congress. This comprises about half defense and half nondefense spending. And the R&D part of each of those is about 10%, together a very small slice of the total federal budget — roughly 3%.

Despite the importance of federal investment, and its relatively small percentage of the entire federal budget, the federal spending on R&D, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), is going down. In fact, it is pretty much following the decreases in all discretionary budgets over the last thirty years: R&D went from 1.2% of GDP in the late 1970s to just under 0.8% in 2016.

The half of federal spending on R&D for defense is mostly for major systems development. Very little is for basic research — the basic research portion of defense R&D has been decreasing over the last 50 years. And non-defense R&D continues to go down as a percentage of GDP, despite all of the sound arguments to the contrary.

There have been large fluctuations in the funding of types of non-defense federal R&D as shown in Figure 1: first starting in 1957, as a response to Sputnik, the Apollo program provided major funding for NASA. And then there was a blip in energy research during the oil embargo starting in 1973. After that, there was the space station, a slight uptick in NASA in the mid 1980s, and a major increase in life-sciences and medical spending due to the war on cancer and doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget starting in the early 1990’s.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Trends in federal non-defense spending on R&D in constant 2014 dollars

Figure 2

Figure 2. Trends in national and European Union R&D spending in current purchasing power parity dollars

International trends in domestic R&D spending (industry and government spending) over time are both interesting and alarming as shown in Figure 2. In the U.S. and the European Union, R&D spending has been climbing nicely, but you can see the amazing skyrocket of the domestic R&D spending of China over the last 20 years. China has made it part of its 15-year plans to aggressively catch up. They have a plan to grow R&D in a comprehensive multi-year strategic program, with plans for a national lab and academic system to rival those of the U.S. and Europe.

Science is international, and the only way to lead in science is to stay ahead of the competition. The global competition here is for the best and brightest minds, which will be drawn to the nations with the greatest ecosystem for scientific R&D and industrial innovation. It is of strategic importance to the national security of the U.S. that cutting-edge biology, materials research, and the fastest indigenous computers are now in China, and that both China and Europe are heavily investing in advances in quantum science and technologies, brain science and artificial intelligence, new energy technologies, and synthetic biology — areas on the cusp of major advances in science and industry.

Funding for Physical Sciences R&D in the FY18 Federal Budget

The administration’s proposed FY18 budget drastically slashes non-defense discretionary spending and R&D. Wild swings in R&D budgets are especially poor ways to manage a scientific workforce, and there is considerable pushback from Congress on this.

The administration’s FY18 proposed budget cuts to R&D spending in the physical sciences terminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, and range from 11% to the National Science Foundation to 16% for DOE Office of Science and 30 to 70% for applied energy programs at DOE. In addition there are proposed drastic reductions in the earth observation and environmental R&D programs across all government agencies.

These cuts if enacted in the DOE R&D budget would immediately trigger layoffs of roughly 25% of staff at the ten DOE Office of Science national laboratories, and reduce operations at the scientific user facilities by 11% to 40%, which would lose the ability to accommodate about 20% of the current user base, three quarters of which comes from academia. The DOE cuts, if enacted, would reduce the physics research funding directly going to universities by 20%, on top of reductions from other agencies. The drastic reductions in applied energy program R&D would cause the U.S. to lose its lead in technology development and economic competitiveness in the major global energy transformation happening in the next decades.

In addition, the reduction in science and energy funding at the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration defense labs would result in layoffs and be devastating to their ability to recruit and retain the best science and engineering staff, essential for their national security mission.

A Call to Action for the Physics Community

So what can the physics community do?

You can propose to your congressional representatives that the support of research in general, and in particular fundamental research, is an important investment in national security and the economy. This is best done through face-to-face discussions and by telling real stories of how your research or other research in their district has made an improvement in society. Hard numbers and documentation of the impacts of any budget cuts are also important inputs to both the Office of Management and Budget and the Hill, and best developed in conjunction with the APS Office of Public Affairs, Panel on Public Affairs, and Physics Policy Committee. Since congressional staffers turn over regularly these arguments need to be made constantly and consistently on the Hill and in your district.

Obviously there are many national priorities. A balance needs to be struck between the support of science and the next generation of scientists on the one hand and meeting important near-term goals of the nation on the other, with the caveat that it can take years for fundamental science to make a huge difference and that it is not known at the time that a particular piece of research will be a home run. But if you don’t swing, no home runs will ever be hit. In the meantime other nations are eagerly at bat.

The House and Senate marks from the appropriations committees introduced to the floor just before the August recess have restored some but not all of the major cuts, and have some substantial disagreements.

It is highly likely that the appropriations committees will propose a Continuing Resolution (CR) for FY18 of the non-defense budgets, keeping the government running temporarily at the same levels as FY17, given the little time left before October to negotiate the proposed changes. An important point to make to your congressional representatives and their staff is that a full-year CR for FY18 enacted at the administration’s FY17 levels, rather than a stopgap CR of a few months followed by an attempt to enact an FY18 budget, will allow a more measured process for management of the scientific community. A full-year’s CR in FY18 would also allow the administration more time to focus on its FY19 budget formulation, which is starting now.

I’ll end with an extremely important point: Although I have been talking about physical science, we need to come together as the whole science community to argue that a broad spectrum of government-supported R&D is important, rather than pointing fingers at other disciplines and saying we should be funding this and not that.

Although federal R&D funding is only 3% of the annual budget, it is a critically important investment in the future of our nation.

The author is Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Professor of Physics, Harvard University. She served as the Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science from 2015 until 2017, overseeing $5.5 billion in research funding as well as the management of 10 national laboratories. She was dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard from 2009 until 2014, and principal associate director for science and technology from 2007 to 2009 and deputy director for science and technology from 2004 to 2007 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. From 1978 to 2004, Murray held a number of positions at Bell Laboratories (Lucent Technologies). She served as APS president in 2009, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering as well as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
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