war on terrorism will mean a dramatic increase in federal spending in
the fields of science and engineering, but much of the new money is
slotted for weapons development and biomedical research.
need to speed research that might help counter-terrorism isn't reason
enough to boost federal spending, there is another. The return of deficit
budgets has freed the White House to open the federal wallet: The Bush
plan would result in an $80 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.
A budget that far in the red, it turns out, makes spending quite a bit
easier. And so the White House's spending plan for research and development
gets its share. None of this would have happened, however, were it not
for the events of September 11. The nation's highest prioritiesthe
war against terrorism, homeland security, and economic revivalare
all served by investments in science, engineering, and education,
according to John Marburger, the head of the White House Office of Science
and Technology Policy, in a recent address. This is one of the
imperatives of sciencethat exploration at the frontier entails
advances in technologyand it is also a powerful and pragmatic
argument for supporting basic science.
the Second World War, of course, scientists and engineers have played
a critical role in national security policy. Starting with the Manhattan
Project and for half a century afterwards, the physical sciences were
at the forefront of developments in the weaponry of the Cold War. Now
a new era is beginning and professionals from different disciplines
will be called uponbiologists studying ways to combat germ warfare
or engineers devising new systems to detect weapons before they are
sneaked onto an aircraft. These are just some of the areas of inquiry
that find favor in the president's budget.
the numbers. The White House has asked Congress for $111.8 billion in
federal research and development spending for fiscal year 2003. That's
the highest level in history and is $8.6 billion (that's 8.3 percent)
greater than was spent in fiscal 2002. But the largesse isn't being
spread around. Of the new federal monies, almost all of it will go to
just two agencies: the Pentagon (up $5.4 billion) and the National Institutes
of Health ($3.9 billion). Do the math and it's clear that all the other
agencies taken together actually will see their research and development
are some clear winners and losers within the bureaucracyand there
are some old-fashioned shell games that might just deceive the casual
eye. The steep increase at NIH (up 17.4 percent from the last fiscal
year) represents the last step in a long-standing commitment to double
that agency's R&D spending. The Institutes' crucial role in the
fight against bioterrorism explains a big part of the increase, as well.
(The increase in NIH funding will continue a three-decade trend: Federal
money for academic research in the life sciences has risen from roughly
$3 billion to about $10 billion in 2001 after adjusting for inflation.
Funding for engineering, on the other hand, hovers near $1 billion,
not much more than its 1973 levels after taking inflation into account.)
that has traditionally been a strong source of engineering moneyspace
research at NASAis set for a substantial increase in funding.
Much of that is due to work on space launch technology designed to develop
a safe, lower cost alternative to the space shuttle, as well as other
research. The National Science Foundation also won a generous increase
in its proposed R&D budgetup 3.6 percent to $3.7 billion.
(Among the items in the NSF budget of interest to engineers is a request
of $37 million to boost graduate fellow stipends to $25,000 a year.
The goal, says NSF Director Rita Colwell, is to attract more of
the nation's most promising students into graduate level science and
engineering.) But what seems a generous level of spending at NSF
is somewhat misleading: Most of the $129 million hike in R&D spending
for fiscal 2003 comes from the transfer of programs from the Commerce
Department, the Interior Department, and the Environmental Protection
Agency to NSF. Those agencies, obviously, saw their budgets decline
by an equal amount.
budget boost for the military doesn't mean there aren't losers at the
Pentagon, either. Most of the 11 percent hike will go to weapons development
rather than to research, according to the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. Basic and applied research would remain unchanged
from last year, while DOD's share of science and technology spending
would actually decline by 2 percent in fiscal 2003. (Science and technology
is a special category created by the White House Office of Management
and Budget that is a catch-all for research-plus programs that are not
in the R&D budget but still help to advance scientific knowledge.)
An exception at DOD: DARPA would get a big increase next year.
is happy with the way the money is being divided up. Even a casual
glance at the budget makes clear what the R&D priorities arebiomedical
research and the fight against terrorism at home and abroad, said
Sherwood Boehlert, the chairman of the House Committee on Science at
a recent budget hearing. These are reasonableeven self-evidentpriorities
and they deserve to be funded more generously than are other programs.
But I'm concerned that the proposed budget treats these items not just
as priorities but as panaceas. And that, I fear, is a mistake.
of the emphasis on fighting terrorism and bioterrorism is that other
research areas will have to do without. The departments of Commerce,
Interior, Agriculture, Transportation, and Energy will all see their
R&D budgets decline in fiscal 2003. The Department of Energy's budget
for research into oil and gas recovery, for example, will be cut dramatically
(even after the vice president's energy task force called for development
of new technologies to extract gas and oil from existing wells.) Of
course, in this new era of deficit politics, Congress may vote to add
the money on top of the president's DOE request. Congress has been known
to do this in the past: In fiscal 2002, the R&D budget included
congressional earmarks worth $1.5 billion.
at a moment of national urgency, there are limits. Choices must
be made, OSTP director Marburger testified to Congress. [We
must choose] between issue-oriented sciences that clearly address societal
needs and the discovery-oriented sciences whose consequences are more
a matter of conjecture. We need both, but how much of either?
The Bush administration certainly seems to have tilted toward the issue-oriented
sciencesand one big issue in particular, as Marburger admitted
in his budget testimony to Congress, The terrorist attacks on
September 11 dramatically changed the context for this budget. The attacks
laid bare vulnerabilities in our physical security and exacerbated weaknesses
in our economy.
the new budget fights back. But in addition to the head-on fight against
terror, Marburger has identified three areas that are also high priorities
for the nation: information technology, nanotechnology, and health research.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks, scientists and engineers have
been trying to anticipate other vulnerabilities in the nation's physical
and economic infrastructure. Computer security is one such area, and
the administration proposes boosting R&D spending on networking
and information technology by 3 percent next fiscal year to $1.9 billion.
The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Initiative would
receive $679 million in the new budget, up 17.3 percent from 2002; a
sizable hike in the revolutionary field that holds the possibility that
science will be able to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular
levelsthis means, conceivably, the engineering of machines the
size of human cells. Some of the Nanotechnology Initiative monies designated
for the NSF will go to the creation of nanoscale science and engineering
the Bush administration got the balance right in its R&D budget
is difficult to tell. In the $111 billion package, there is money that
the Pentagon might deploy in the war against terrorism. But there is
also money for research at the frontiers of science and engineering.
The challenge, perhaps, will be for scientists and engineers to offer
their services to the nation in a time of crisis without abandoning
the more profound search for understanding. Science has its own
imperative and this nation will continue to pursue it, Marburger
explained in his address on terrorism. He noted that he detected a fear
in the community: a notion that science may be diverted in a massive
way as it was in World War II, the course of discovery interrupted,
the quality of intellectual life distorted and impaired. Or, on the
other hand, that a great windfall for science is at hand, at least for
some of us, because of the need for new research bent to the exigencies
of new forms of warfare.
is it? The Bush budget does divert science. Whether for good or ill,
no one yet knows.
Auster is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached
by e-mail at email@example.com.