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MISSILES & MEDICINE

- By Bruce Auster

The 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.

If the 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 priorities—the war against terrorism, homeland security, and economic revival—are 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 science—that exploration at the frontier entails advances in technology—and it is also a powerful and pragmatic argument for supporting basic science.”

Since 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 upon—biologists 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.

But first, 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 budgets decline.

There are some clear winners and losers within the bureaucracy—and 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.)

One area that has traditionally been a strong source of engineering money—space research at NASA—is 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 budget—up 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.

The big 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.

Not everyone 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 are—biomedical 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 reasonable—even self-evident—priorities 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.”

One consequence 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.

But even 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 answer: The Bush administration certainly seems to have tilted toward the issue-oriented sciences—and 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.”

Hard Choices

And so 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 levels—this 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 centers.

Whether 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.”

Which is it? The Bush budget does divert science. Whether for good or ill, no one yet knows.

Bruce Auster is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached by e-mail at bauster@asee.org.