Federal Science Funding Barely Keeps Pace With Inflation

Researchers fearing that the agreement between Congress and President Clinton to balance the federal budget by 2002 would decimate science funding can rest a little easier. Each of the eight major federal departments funding research will at least keep pace with or slightly exceed the 2.6 percent inflation rate in FY1998-with the exception of the Department of Agriculture, which will receive 2 percent less research funding in real dollars. As expected, Congress met or exceeded the president's b

Nov 24, 1997
Paul Smaglik

Researchers fearing that the agreement between Congress and President Clinton to balance the federal budget by 2002 would decimate science funding can rest a little easier. Each of the eight major federal departments funding research will at least keep pace with or slightly exceed the 2.6 percent inflation rate in FY1998-with the exception of the Department of Agriculture, which will receive 2 percent less research funding in real dollars. As expected, Congress met or exceeded the president's budgetary requests for R&D, with a few exceptions.

However, the FY1998 budget fails to significantly reverse the long-term trend of slow erosion in science funding in the 1990s due to inflation. Total federal research has grown at an average of less than 1 percent a year since 1990, according to a National Science Foundation analysis, "Survey of Federal Funds for Research and Development" (NSF Publication 97-302). The report illustrates that 1997's 1.3 percent drop to $62.1 billion is really equivalent to a loss of 3.7 percent in purchasing power, following a 2.2 percent dip in 1996.

Biomedicine continues to be the exception, and the National Institutes of Health's budget emerges as one of the year's biggest winners, gaining a 4.7 percent increase above inflation. "We're delighted with the trust Congress has given us in expanding our research," says Ralph G. Yount, president of the Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Washington State University. "There's been a revolution in biology over the past 15 years. We are now in a position to take advantage of it." Yount notes that FASEB, the American Chemical Society, and the American Physical Society successfully lobbied for an increase in NSF's budget. If more scientific organizations joined forces, federal support for the basic sciences, which often lead to advances in applied fields like biomedicine, could match the support for NIH, Yount contends.

(in millions)
 FY1997FY1998 Request Congress Action
Department of Defense $36,593 $36,934 $37,891
National Institutes of Health* $12,750 $13,078 $13,600
National Aeronautics and Space Administration $9,315 $9,604 $9,818
Department of Energy $6,103 $6,954 $6,292
National Science Foundation $3,270 $3,367 $3,429
Department of Agriculture $1,544 $1,483 $1,553
Department of Commerce $844 $949 **
Environmental Protection Agency $541 $579 $618
Department of the Interior $581 $608 $616
*Figures account for overall budget
**Figures for Department of Commerce were unavailable at press time

Sources: National Science Foundation, House and Senate Committee Appropriations Committee

Over the last year, a growing number of legislators in both the House and the Senate have been listening to pro-research messages from organizations such as FASEB. Legislators have called for measures to double all nonmilitary research funding over 10 years, but the FY1998 budget fails to reflect their rhetoric (P. Smaglik, The Scientist, Nov. 10, 1997, page 1). Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), speaker of the House, joined the growing chorus in Congress seeking to reverse the erosion of research dollars during testimony at the House Budget Committee on October 23. "I am willing to renegotiate the budget numbers for science and defense because I think there you ought to respond to the opportunity in science and to the demand in defense," he said. During the testimony, Gingrich hinted that more money could be available by balancing the budget sooner than 2002-a scenario made possible by a lower- than-expected 1997 deficit. By reaping the benefits of a booming economy, Gingrich prioritizes using any budget surplus to make larger payments on the national debt, lowering income tax, and raising funding for science, defense, and transportation. Administration sources call this an unlikely scenario, since long-term economic forecasts are seldom reliable.

  • Department of Defense: DOD remains the single largest source of federal research money for 1998. The agency will receive a 0.9 percent gain over inflation for 1998. However, the portion of defense dollars available to universities and grant applicants outside the government remains frozen at the 1997 level of $1.08 billion, representing a 2.6 percent erosion in real dollars due to inflation. Some administration sources, as well as some legislators, say they are dissatisfied with this figure, although Congress has passed the spending bill and President Clinton has signed it into law.

    Applied research jumps 6.3 percent to $3.128 billion, while research directly channeled toward developing new weapon systems will drop 25.4 percent under the 1998 budget.

  • National Institutes of Health: Congress hiked NIH's budget from $12.75 billion in 1997 to $13.648 billion for FY1998, a 4.7 percent increase after inflation. In a surprise decision, the conference committee also gave the controversial Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) a 57.4 percent boost after inflation, from $12 million in 1997 to $20 million for FY1998 (P. Smaglik, The Scientist, Nov. 10, 1997, page 7).

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Even though NASA's overall budget will drop from $13.7 billion in 1997 to $13.6 billion in 1998, the portion allocated to research and development will rise 2.8 percent over inflation, from $9.315 billion to $9.818 billion, reflecting administrator Daniel S. Goldin's "cheaper, better, faster" approach to the agency. That approach involves reducing administrative costs and focusing on a smaller number of research projects and manned expeditions.

    Funding for NASA's life sciences and microgravity research will drop 12.7 percent with inflation from 1997's $244 million level to 1998's $219 million figure. The space station continues to receive a large portion of NASA R&D dollars. At $2.41 billion for 1998 (up 8 percent after inflation over the 1997 level of $2.18 billion), the project consumes the equivalent of nearly 25 percent of the agency's total R&D budget.

  • Department of Energy: Congress drastically slashed President Clinton's $6.964 billion DOE request to the FY1998 $6,292 billion level, a 0.5 percent increase over 1997's $6.103 billion, after inflation. The final budget favors energy supply research, which will make slight gains against inflation, while the basic science category, containing high- energy physics and nuclear physics studies, will drop 1.1 percent against inflation. DOE's capital budget also includes a $190 million payment toward building the world's largest laser at the National Ignition Facility at DOE's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The FY1997 budget included a $132 million payment toward the $1.2 billion project, designed to reproduce conditions of matter near the center of the sun.

  • National Science Foundation: In a surprise boost by Congress, NSF will receive $3.429 billion for 1998, an increase of $179 million, or 2.4 percent over the 1997 level after inflation. The agency had requested $3.367 billion. The portion of NSF's budget dedicated to grants to universities will get a slightly smaller lift of 1.9 percent to $2.546 billion for research and related activities.

    (in millions)
      FY1997 FY1998 Request Congress Action
    Research and Related Activities $2,432 $2,514 $2,546
    Education and Human Resources $619 $626 $633
    Major Research Equipment $80 $85 $109
    Sources: National Science Foundation, House and Senate Committee Appropriations Committee
    NSF's major gain from Congress comes in terms of infrastructure. The 24 percent increase to $109 million will be used to build an observatory for atmospheric sciences near the North Pole, improve the United States South Pole station, complete the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, and begin building the Millimeter Array, a group of 40 telescopes.

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture: After inflation, USDA's R&D figure for 1998 represents a loss of 2 percent in buying power. The Agricultural Research Service, USDA's in-house research arm, will see its budget rise from the FY1997 level of $716.8 million to the FY1998 level of $744 million . Grants to state cooperative research extensions will increase slightly, from $421.5 million in FY1997 to $431.4 million in FY1998. USDA's research budget hasn't been hurt as badly as its overall budget, which will fall from $52.2 billion in 1997 to $49.7 billion in 1998, a 7.3 percent reduction, after inflation. Some of the loss can be attributed to cuts in food stamps resulting from an improved economy and welfare reform.

    The federal government's sudden cessation of support for agricultural research facilities could be the most painful to universities. The FY1997 budget allocated $61.6 million for that purpose; the FY1998 budget figure for that category is zero.

  • Department of Commerce: The science and technology programs of the Commerce Department will meet a mixed fiscal fate for FY1998, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) gaining the upper hand over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Congress funded NIST at $677.9 million for FY1998, a 14 percent increase over inflation from FY1997's $581 million level. In the past, Congress has denied large proposals to NIST; the increase was closer to President Clinton's $692.5 million request-an 18.5 percent increase above inflation. NIST's Advanced Technology Program emerged as an R&D budgetary survivor, since some legislators initially sought to eliminate the program on the basis that it benefits specific industries and businesses. The program pays for research that may become marketable in the future. ATP will receive $192.5 million of NIST's budget for FY1998, down from the FY1997 level of $225 million and well short of President Clinton's initial $275 million request. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fared worse. It will be funded at $2 billion for FY1998, up 1.0 percent after inflation from the 1997 level of $1.93 billion.

  • Environmental Protection Agency: EPA's science and technology budget will jump from $541 million in 1997 to $618 for 1998, an 11.6 percent increase. That jump comes largely from Congress's specification that $49.6 million be spent on research of particulate matter and ozone's long- and short- term effects on air quality. The Senate and House had originally stipulated that the agency should give NIH $35 million for air-quality research. EPA, while not now formally required to, will likely funnel some of the $49.6 million to other research agencies.

  • Department of Interior: DOI's overall budget will increase 3.5 percent over inflation to the FY1998 figure of $616 million, but the U.S. Geological Survey budget, within the department, will decline 0.9 percent against inflation, from $529 million in FY1997 to $538 million in FY1998.

Agencies already have begun putting together their budget requests for FY1999. President Clinton is expected to unveil those requests in February. Science policy watchers will have to wait until then to definitively determine whether those numbers are climbing upward, marking the beginning of the doubling trend legislators have been proposing.