Congress Abandons Commitment to Basic Research; Puts NIST in the Construction Business

By Cameron
December 18, 2007

For two years the debate about how to bolster innovation and competitiveness has consumed Washington. Numerous reports (1,2,3,4,5, we could keep going …) recommended boosting funding for basic research, and science and math education to respond to growing global competition. These drove a bipartisan consensus (and new law — the COMPETEs Act), between the President and Congress on the need to double funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE-OS) over the next seven years. Last night Congress walked away from this commitment by passing below-inflation increases for research at NSF and NIST, loading DOE-OS and NIST up with earmarks, and a slight increase for science and math education at NSF.

Peter Harsha at CRA has more details on NSF and computing-related programs, but here is the proposed funding for fiscal year 2008 and changes against the last fiscal year:

Agency (Figures in Millions) FY08 FY07 % change $ change
National Science Foundation
NSF Research Accounts $4,821 $4,765 1.18% $56
NSF Education Account $725 $698 3.95% $27.6
NIST Labs $441 $434 1.41% $6.1
Department of Energy Office of Science $4,055 $3,797 6.8% $258
Department of Energy Office of Science w/o earmarks $3,930 $3,797 3.5% $133

Increases to NSF’s research account and NIST’s lab budget are well under inflation. (CPI running at about 3.5 percent.) Taking mandatory federal salary adjustments into account, this likely means cuts to research conducted within the facilities and research funding going out the door. That’s right — Congress is proposing cuts to key physical science intramural and extramural research just over four months after celebrating a new law calling for doubling agency research funding.

Reviewing the details is even more troubling as, at least for NIST and DOE-OS, the problem wasn’t that Congress couldn’t find funding. The problem was it earmarked substantial chunks of the budget for unrelated actives. For example, NIST’s construction budget contains $51 million in earmarks. We don’t normally post specific earmarks, but Congress’ reversal on science funding is so stark, it is worth calling out why:

  • Biotech research park at the University of Mississippi,
  • Engineering and science center at the University of South Alabama
  • Innovation and commercialization park at the University of Southern Mississippi
  • Life Sciences Building at Alabama State University
  • Research, Technology and Economic Development Park Expansion at Mississippi State University

Even more troubling, NIST’s budget contains a new $30 million program for NIST to give “competitive grants for research science buildings.”

So what does any of this have to do with NIST’s core mission such as research on metrology, particle physics, computer security, and voting machines? It isn’t a trick question — the answer is nothing. If Congress put that $80 million back into NIST’s labs it would equal a 20 percent increase — more than enough to fulfill the commitment Congress made under the COMPETEs act with money leftover prized earmarks.

The one bright spot, which is a relative term considering this budget, is that Congress boosted funding for NSF’s Education Directorate. Although it was just over inflation — 3.95 percent. Within this allocation it specifically increased funding for the Noyce program by 50 percent (or $5 million). This program provides scholarships to students that have a science major, but go on to pursue teaching degrees as well.

The legislation moves onto Senate for consideration today, and the President seems to be leaning toward signing the bill.

Obviously, we are disappointed. Just last week during a Capitol Hill forum former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine said “Leadership in science and technology is not a birthright of the United States but is something that needs to be fought for and won day-after-day.” For Congress this really means year-after-year as it makes hard decisions on annual funding for science agencies so critical to research and education. This year Congress abandoned its commitment to lead in science and technology. Hopefully it will realize its mistake next year and correct it.