After overseeing the first NIH budget cut since the Nixon administration, President George Bush claims to be a proponent of basic research:
So I'm going to work with these two Congressmen to pass what we've called the American Competitive [sic] Initiative, which says that we will be the most -- we'll lead the world when it comes to research and development. The federal government should double its commitment to basic research in physical sciences over the next 10 years. People say, why would the federal government be investing? Well, I'll give you why -- the Internet. The Internet came to be because of federal research dollars. iPods -- got one? I got one, you know? (Laughter.) As a result of federal research.
The American Competitiveness Initiative, announced in this year's State of the Union address, includes a declaration by the President to double funding for the National Science Foundation. (And yes the iPod thing is in the official document that your government wrote to explain "science" to Americans.)
A serious long-term commitment to funding basic research would be wonderful. It would help America's economy, help secure our place of leadership in the world, and help to fuel a positive American philosophy about our future. Unfortunately, President Bush and his Republican Congress have simpler goals: to provide themselves with political cover during the midterm elections as pro-science, while they continue to starve out American research.
1. They have made this promise before
In 2002, Congress passed and the President signed The National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 2002. From the House Committee on Science:
"The National Science Foundation (NSF) Authorization Act of 2002” sets the government’s premier research agency on the path to doubling its budget over the next five years. The bill authorizes 15 percent increases in each of fiscal years 2003, 2004 and 2005.
So how's that coming along? Not so well.
The blue line shows the level of funding set by the 2002 Act. The red bars show actual funding. So, did Bush break his promise? Well, tell me if you've ever heard this excuse before:
The executive branch shall construe the purported condition as advisory, since any other construction would be inconsistent with the principles enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court... The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch, to protect the deliberative processes of the Executive, and to submit to the Congress such recommendations as the President judges necessary and expedient.
In other words, the President is above the law, and he never promised nothin' to nobody nohow anyway. Did the Congressional Republicans break their promise? Absolutely. It is important that they be held to remember it -- and that we don't in 2006 swallow the same baloney they were feeding us in 2002.
2. It is cover for starving NIH
Even if Congressional Republicans remember their promise this time, the NSF funding -- which is long overdue -- is not being used as a genuine investment in basic research, but as political cover for starving out NIH. (Disclosure: I receive funding through NIH.)
What is the difference between NSF and NIH? NSF funds primarily the physical sciences -- physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, math, geology, astrophysics -- and a sliver of social science. NIH funds biomedical research, both clinical studies (trying out new treatments on patients) and basic research (understanding how genes, cells, and organs work, in the lab).
NIH is "by far the largest federal supporter of R&D at colleges and universities, with nearly two-thirds of the federal total." President Bush's Republican Congress is holding its budget dead flat.
It is not that NIH is more important than NSF -- indeed, almost all progress in biology follows from advances in the kinds of research funded by NSF. But NIH is much bigger than NSF. Congressional Republicans are not putting more money into basic research by doubling NSF -- they would just be playing an Enron-style shell game, robbing one agency to pay another.
Consider this: Increasing the NIH budget simply to keep up with inflation in 2007 would have cost $1.1 billion. The entire 2007 increase for NSF is $440 million.
This is not an honest investment in American research.
3. Boom-and-bust funding drives young people out of science
The NIH recently completed its own five-year budget doubling (1998-2003). Frankly, it wasn't such a good idea. The inflation rate for biological research outpaced nationwide inflation. But more importantly, that level of growth is unsustainable -- both in terms of realistic budget considerations, and in terms of the number of quality PhDs the US can produce. It is simply not reasonable to expect the country to double its scientific output every five years.
The ten-year doubling goal for NSF is more modest. It amounts to a little more than 7% increase each year, or a few percent over inflation. These budgets shouldn't be planned as five-year or ten-year investments, though. Five years is the time for one graduate student to get one Ph.D. Ten years may pass before that entering student has to apply for her first independent grant. If we are asking young people to commit to a career in academic research, we need to make at least an equally long-term commitment to funding them. Budgets should be set to increase a minimum of 5% per year over fifty years -- not doubling in five or ten.
Look at NIH. It just completed its doubling, then in a year went from 15% per year increases down to just keeping pace with inflation, then sharply into its first real cut in 36 years. Now it is flat again. That is a boom-and-bust cycle -- something any Texan can recognize.
The effect was that universities began expanding their biology departments, building new labs and hiring. Now there is a wave of recently-hired assistant professors who were able to get jobs but are facing an ever harder time getting grants to do any research. Recently, the NIH funded as many as 1 in 3 grant applications -- it has already dropped to 1 in 5, and those that do pass are getting funded at lower levels.
Undergraduates deciding whether to continue to grad school are seeing these hard times and uncertainty. Grad students deciding whether to continue on the long road into academic research are seeing it, too. We can pour as much money as we can afford into high school and college science education, but we are not going to get more scientists out the other end if they see an unhappy life filled with risky bets ahead. Boom-and-bust doesn't only hurt the research of today, but it punches more holes in an already leaky pipeline for bringing American students into basic research.
The good news
Politically, funding basic research is a terrific wedge to separate moderate Republicans from fundamentalists. In the House, moderate Republican Mike Castle of Delaware has been willing to stand off against conservatives unwilling to fund NIH. In the Senate, moderate Republican Arlen Specter has been a long-time ardent advocate of science funding -- probably a better advocate than most scientists themselves, something he recently chided us for.
"We're going to do more -- and we're going to ask you to do more." Specter said the advocates should stage a million-person march in Washington, D.C., with "enough people to be heard in the living quarters of the White House." He also said that groups should hold protests against 27 Republican senators who voted against increasing NIH funding. "You ought to march on them in their cities," he said, adding, "This is a battle that has to be waged by the 110 million Americans that are suffering from these illnesses in the United States"
Not only is the issue of science funding a politically useful tool, but it is also an area where we can expect to make solid gains. There are enough moderates in Congress that we don't need to regain control of either house to see an increase in funding. This is a an area where it is not all-or-none -- this is an area where every seat counts.
If you get a funny feeling in your gut when Bush says he supports science funding, your gut is right -- he doesn't. Bush and Congressional Republicans have made this promise before, are using the NSF as political cover while they starve science funding overall, and their lack of a sustainable long-term plan is depleting the next generation of scientists. I've avoided writing about science funding because I feel I'm too close to it, and it would come out preachy. But I hope this piece is useful to you if you need to debate policy with a moderate Republican. As always, I look forward to your comments.