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President’s Budget Reflects R&D Priorities, But Contains New Low for Federal R&D Funding

President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request includes modest increases in R&D funding for several agencies but as a share of the total federal budget, R&D investment would fall to its lowest level in more than 50 years.

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President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request includes modest increases in R&D funding for several agencies but as a share of the total federal budget, R&D investment would fall to its lowest level in more than 50 years, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) chief budget analyst told a Capitol Hill briefing.

Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said the Obama administration’s fourth budget request clearly reflects its R&D priorities. “They’re very much still focused on jobs, innovation, and science,” he said. Additionally, the administration is seeking moderate funding increases for agencies including the Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which have key programs related to the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 law passed to encourage technology-based innovation and improvements in science education.

“It’s pretty clear that a lot of the trends that have emerged over the past 10 years will continue under the president’s budget. Commerce, energy, general science, [and] transportation will all continue to do pretty well,” Hourihan said. “Health, agriculture, space, [and] defense wouldn’t make out particularly well, but would continue their long-term declines that we’ve seen since 2003.”

Hourihan spoke at a 27 March briefing on the outlook for federal R&D funding. The AAAS event was organized in conjunction with the House Research and Development Caucus and the caucus co-chairs, U.S. Representatives Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) and Judy Biggert (R-Illinois), joined Hourihan at the briefing.

The 2013 budget request includes $3.8 trillion in outlays compared to $2.9 trillion in revenues, leading the administration to predict a budget deficit of $900 billion, Hourihan said, though the Congressional Budget Office anticipates the deficit will run closer to $980 billion. Of the $3.8 trillion budget request, $142.2 billion would be authorized for federal R&D spending, including $72.6 billion for defense-related R&D.

However, Hourihan cautioned, the president’s budget request does not reflect the sequestration, an agreement the U.S. Congress came to during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis as part of the Budget Control Act. The sequestration imposes automatic budget cuts to many federal programs by January 2013 if Congress does not agree on a proposal to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. If enacted, the sequestration could amount to an eight to ten percent budget cut for programs included in the agreement. While the president’s budget request includes some bright spots, he said, “the appropriations outlook will be difficult, to say the least.”

The annual briefing on the R&D funding in the federal budget is held between the release of the president’s budget request and the beginning of the appropriations process. “All too often, amidst heated political debates, bipartisan priorities can be drowned out and neglected,” Biggert said, “and now more than ever, the advocacy message for strong basic research investments must be heard loud and clear across the Capitol campus if we want to remain a global leader in innovation.”

Holt and Biggert formed the caucus to take a broad look at R&D, Holt said. “You can find interest groups around Capitol Hill that will talk about research in one subject area or another,” he said. “But no one at the time we formed this, and I would say no one else today, is looking at research and development writ large—how we are investing as a nation, what we are doing about our seed corn, so to speak.”

Compared to the 2012 budget, the Department of Commerce would see the biggest proportional increase in R&D funding, Hourihan said, followed by the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Transportation. The next tier of agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, would see modest increases in their budgets. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense would see nominal declines.

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, recalled his experience as an NIH institute director, at a time when the NIH budget received dramatic increases. “I’m fond of saying flat has become the new doubling,” Leshner said at the briefing. “Now my colleagues are euphoric if the budget is held flat.”

While NIH would receive a flat budget under this request, Hourihan said, inflation in the field of biomedical science would mean a decline in real dollars. However, NIH will attempt to increase grants by eight percent by making changes such as not adjusting continuing grants for inflation.

The budget request includes a five percent increase in R&D spending at NSF, which has seen its budget increase 20 percent over the last decade. “Every directorate would get at least a moderate increase under the president’s budget and some would do very well,” Hourihan said, as many of the administration’s key priorities fall under the purview of NSF.

Meanwhile, other countries including Japan, China, and South Korea are increasing the percentage of gross domestic product that they dedicate to R&D funding, Hourihan said. “The U.S. research enterprise is facing the prospects of some pretty substantial cuts, just as others are increasing their own investments in science and innovation. These are two trends that will be difficult to reconcile, but the country will have to find a way to do so.”