ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
Last Word
Boosting Our Investment in Research

By U.S. Rep David Price

Let me start by stating what many of us already know: Research is a major driving force of the new economy. It has certainly fueled the economic growth in the area I represent in Congress, which houses private and governmental research operations in Research Triangle Park and is anchored by Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

But it's not just the research hotbeds that have experienced an economic boom. The fruits of both public and private R&D are widespread in the new economy (anyone do holiday shopping online last year?). Alan Greenspan has credited technical innovations with allowing the economic growth the United States has enjoyed without causing inflation. Those of us in Congress must continue to be on the side of policies that boost our investment in research and foster innovation, whether it's for health, high-tech, or biotech.

This year, Congress in-creased research funding by $4 billion (a five percent increase) to $83.3 billion in a year marked by budget battles and a fiscal squeeze. For the first time in more than 20 years, the president requested more in civilian research and development than in defense-related R&D, and in the end, there was near parity between civilian ($41.1 billion) and defense ($41.3 billion) research. While the overall picture is encouraging, this positive is tempered by the fact that a few areas did well while others continue to tread water, weighed down by budgetary gimmicks and shortsightedness.

First, let's look at the good news. The Research and Experiment (R&E) tax credit was extended for five years, breaking the cycle of extending this critical credit for only 12 or 18 months. We hope this extension will give universities and industry the ability to plan for the long term, while we continue to push for the permanent R&E extension that could result in an additional $41 billion in private sector research and development investment by 2010.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) received a $2.2 billion increase to $18.1 billion. Congress continues to reward research affecting human health; over the past seven years, NIH's budget has increased 47 percent after accounting for inflation.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) received a $140 million increase (five percent) to $2.9 billion, and is the only other agency with a significant research enterprise to beat inflation over the past seven years.

What about the rest of the story? Two words that exemplified the gimmickry that marked this year's budget process are "forward funding." To squeeze all additional spending under the budget caps and to allow people to say they are not spending the Social Security surplus, this forward funding gimmick was deployed. While NIH, for example, received a large increase, $3 billion of its budget cannot be obligated before the last day of the fiscal year. This means NIH cannot award grants with 17 percent of its budget in fiscal year 2000, giving them less money for 364 days this year than it had in 365 days last year. Instead, the money will be spent during fiscal year 2001, counting against next year's budget. This, of course, sets up another budget squeeze when Congress starts to consider the FY2001 budget.

Ninety percent of the increase at NSF is for the Clinton Administration's information technology program. While this is a very welcome increase that could pay big dividends, it should be noted that other research at NSF was essentially flat funded.

We should all be concerned about the unevenness of the increase in the federal investment in research. It seems unless you are doing work on a highly visible health problem or improving the Internet, additional research dollars are hard to come by. NASA, the Department of Energy, USDA, the Department of the Interior, EPA, and the Department of Commerce have all seen reductions in their R&D budgets in real dollars over the past seven years. None received an increase above 3.7 percent this year.

The shortsightedness of this approach is lost on many. I am often visited in my office by cancer survivors whose testimony makes clear the benefits of additional research. But all research advocates must be able to point to breakthroughs and discoveries made in their areas with federal funds. We must support the building blocks of discovery, not just the high-profile results. Without studying spin characteristics of basic matter, research in mathematics, and high-flux magnets, for example, there would be no MRI to identify tumors.

The many success stories illustrate all too clearly the benefits of investing in research and development. Every member of Congress must feel the need to close the gap between what we say we want to provide and what we are actually willing to invest.


    David Price (D–NC) serves on the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.

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