PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9
FEAST OR FAMINE? - Overall, the nation’s R&D budget will shrink for fiscal year 2007. - By Thomas K. Grose - Illustration by

When it comes to money for research and development, the Bush administration proposes to giveth as well as taketh away in fiscal year 2007. But the news for the most part is good for those in engineering and the physical sciences.

After a National Academies of Science report last year warned that America’s future security and economic strength were at risk for lack of funding of basic research in engineering and the physical sciences, President George W. Bush responded with the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), a plan to double funding over the next decade. And his
budget reflects that promise. Three agencies that fund the lion’s share of engineering and physical science research—the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—are penciled in for significant jumps in funding. Overall R&D funding is up 1.8 percent over 2006 to $137 billion.

However, most of the total amount earmarked for R&D is going to weapons development and development of a space vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle. Strip those dollars out—as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) analysis has done—and money available for basic and applied research totals $54.8 billion. That’s a slide of 3.3 percent and represents the third year in a row that research financing has taken a hit. “The increases in the ACI are substantial and significant,” says Kei Koizumi, director of AAAS’s R&D Budget and Policy Program. “That’s great news for scientists. But the rest of the (proposed) budget is not.” John G. Gilligan, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at North Carolina State University, agrees: “It is a flat budget picture overall.”

Even within the Department of Defense (DOD) and NASA, two agencies that historically have been big supporters of physical science researchers, research money is tight. The Pentagon’s total proposed R&D budget is up 2.2 percent to $74.1 billion. But nearly $63 billion of that money is for weapons development—such as missile defense systems and the Joint Strike Fighter. Money for Science and Technology (S&T) is set to tumble 18.6 percent to $11.2 billion. NASA is to receive a 7 percent hike in R&D money, an extra $907 million. But all of that sum and more would be used to develop a Shuttle replacement vehicle. Moreover, money for homeland security R&D, which surged after the 9/11 terror attacks, is being pared back in this budget plan. Within the Department of Homeland Security, the R&D budget would fall 10.3 percent to $1.1 billion (and money for basic research would plummet 20 percent). Overall funding for homeland security R&D (since most of it is doled out by other agencies) would drop by less than a percent to $5.1 billion.

Nevertheless, for money-starved engineers, physicists and other researchers who toil in the physical sciences, the ACI cash comes as a relief after years of flat funding or cutbacks. Under the Bush plan, NSF’s research budget jumps 8.3 percent to $4.5 billion; DOE’s Science Office’s shoots up 14.4 percent to $3.8 billion; and NIST’s skyrockets 21.3 percent to $382 million.

A huge source of academic research funding is, of course, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which from 1998 to 2003 saw its budget double annually. The 2007 budget plan keeps NIH research funding flat at $27.8 billion, which is as good as a cut after inflation. The hit rate for grant applications at the NIH has deteriorated from 1 in 3 in 2001 to 1 in 5. This also affects many engineering academics because in recent years growing numbers have gravitated to bioengineering research. North Carolina State’s College of Engineering has a biomedical department, operated jointly with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that’s feeling a research budget squeeze, Gilligan says.

Although the Pentagon’s proposed R&D budget is up, a large majority of the money will go to weapons development, like these F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.

For deans of engineering schools who place many of their graduates into the aerospace and defense industries, the huge amount of development spending is good news, inasmuch as it means that jobs for young engineers in those fields are likely to remain plentiful. But for academic researchers, there’s little to cheer about. It’s the rare school lab that’s involved in weapons or space vehicle development, which is almost entirely handled by government or industry researchers.

Certainly money for defense and security R&D has in the past benefited the wider civilian population and economy. The most obvious example is the Pentagon research that led to the creation of the Internet. But, as Koizumi notes, few development projects spark that kind of economic boost. And because missile defense systems and a next-generation spacecraft are such narrowly focused development projects, “spinoffs that help the broader economy are unlikely.”

Concern About the Basics

Koizumi says that many in the scientific community understand the need for defense and security spending. But they worry that placing so much of that money into development projects while cutting back on basic defense research is shortsighted. Without long-term investment into basic research, he argues, “there will be no payoff for the military of the future.” The total R&D budget set for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is $9.3 billion, which is $3 million more than the DOE’s entire proposed R&D budget. That MDA figure reflects a $1.6 billion increase. If its funding remained static instead, Koizumi says, that $1.6 billion could pay for a huge amount of basic research. Also, a large chunk of the MDA’s money is for the controversial and much-delayed national missile defense system, which is largely based in Alaska. Many top rocket scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Theodore Postol, insist it’s a boondoggle that will never work.

NASA’s 7 percent budget increase (and more) will be used to develop a new crew exploration vehicle, shown here in lunar orbit, designed to replace the Space Shuttle.

North Carolina State clearly looks set to benefit from the budget. It is a school that not only has a large College of Engineering but a College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, so the NSF is traditionally its main source of grant money. Accordingly, the extra ACI money the agency is set to receive makes Gilligan happy: “I am certainly really excited and pleased with the increased funding in the ACI.” And while industrial funding of basic research has leveled off in recent years on a national level, it’s still growing at NCSU, which works closely with industry.

As the saying goes, the president proposes and Congress disposes. And the White House’s 2007 budget blueprint will surely undergo many changes as it wends its way through the House and Senate. The ACI has staunch support on Capitol Hill, however, so the extra money for the physical sciences will likely remain untouched or might even be increased. “And that’s a welcome change for the physics community,” Koizumi admits. Gilligan says he hopes lawmakers will put back some of Bush’s proposed R&D funding cuts without cutting too deeply elsewhere. Indeed, the Senate is on record as saying it wants to increase NIH funding. But with the deficit spiraling upward, and with big bills to pay to cover the costs of the Iraq War, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and sacrosanct entitlement programs, competition for federal bucks is fierce.

So it seems likely that America’s overall research budget looks set to shrink yet again.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer.


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