A New Budget Season Begins As Last Year's Finally Ends

By Cameron
February 9, 2006

The President has released his proposed budget, and taking a look at the research and development portion shows some winners (notably information technology research and development funding) and some losers (agriculture, environment, and transportation). Also, yesterday the President signed last year’s massive budget “reconciliation” bill, which ushers in the era of digital television and creates a substiantial new math and science student aid program. We take a look at both below:

The New

One of the most important programs to the computing community is the National Information Technology Research and Development program (or NITRD). This is really is an aggregate measure of spending on IT R&D across all of the federal government. Peter at the Computing Research Association has a great, but necessarily convoluted, analysis of this program showing that the President is proposing about a 9.4 percent (approximately $240 million) increase to the program. Specifically, Peter mentions, “… maybe what’s most important for computing researchers is the knowledge that the traditional three big supporters for fundamental computing research — NSF, DOE and DOD/DARPA — all would see increases in the coming year under the President’s plan.”

This increase is a result of President Bush’s new American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) that we outlined last week. The ACI encompasses four areas — increasing research funding, new math and science education programs, reforming workforce programs, and making some immigration reforms. Under the “research” plank, funding for the National Science Foundation is up 7.9 percent ($439 million), funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology is up about 24 percent ($104 million), and funding for basic research at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science is up 14 percent ($505 million).

The overall budget for research and development is up this year by almost two percent ($2.6 billion), but, with the exceptions noted above, the overall basic research budget is flat. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has put out their initial analysis, including some detailed tables showing the aggregate data.

It is also worth noting that the President is proposing about $5 million (about a $2.2 million increase) for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to do research on voting equipment. This is certainly a welcome increase given the continuing issues with voting equipment standards.

The Old

Normally the budget year ends in October, but, as we’ve been reporting, last year was anything but a normal year. Budget politics delayed what is called the “budget reconciliation” package from hitting the President’s desk for signature until today. We’ll spare you the gory details of the process, but we wanted to share some of the details of the actual package.

Among the most important technology provisions of the package was the transition to digital television. This act mandates that all over-the-air television broadcasts switch from analog to digital by February 17, 2009. This move will free up a swath of spectrum which the U.S. government will then auction off to the highest bidder. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this will generate about $10 billion (private estimates think it might be upwards of $80 billion). Congress will use most of the revenue for deficit reduction, but they have allocated about $4 billion to new programs. Here is a sampling of the interesting ones:

  • $1.5 billion for consumers to buy boxes that covert television signals from digital to analog for non-digital television sets. (I’ll type this in my best “fine-print reader on radio” voice: Each consumer can apply for a $40 coupon to purchase sets, limit two per household, and coupons can’t be combined). The one editorial comment we have about the program, beyond its overall questionable merit, is the “administrative expenses” cap is $100 million, with no more than $5 million going for consumer “education.” Last year Congress allocated about $16 million for cybersecurity research at the Department of Homeland Security. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions about misplaced priorities.

  • $1 billion in grants to state and local government for acquisition or deployment of, or training for, interoperable communications systems. This program was created to address the public safety communication interoperability problems highlighted by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
  • $100 million for a national alert system capable of alerting the public on a “national, regional, or local basis” using a variety of communications technologies. It isn’t clear how this fits into our existing Emergency Alert System.
  • $50 million for a tsunami warning and coastal vulnerability program.

So it looks like it is a good time to be in the converter box and interoperable communications technology business.

The bill also includes the $4.5 billion science and math education grant program for low-income college students we have arleady posted on. Note that this program includes a focus on computer science majors.