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Bush asks for more physical science

February 5, 2008 By Eric E Hand This article courtesy of Nature News.

President seeks competitive edge with final budget request.

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WASHINGTON DC

In his final year as president, George W. Bush has put forward a budget wish-list that looks to restore his priorities in science and research, with solid increases for some physical sciences and pretty much no new money for the biomedical sector. Whether Congress will go along with this remains to be seen.

In terms of research and development, the budget’s most pronounced feature is a 15% (US$1.6 billion) increase in physical-sciences spending year on year (see ). In December 2007, last-minute negotiations in Congress derailed the second year of Bush’s ‘American Competitiveness Initiative’, removing money from many physical-science programmes. This new request is meant to put the initiative’s aim of a doubling of physical-sciences budgets over 10 years as part of the initiative back on track, asking for $12.2 billion spread across the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). At the same time Bush would freeze funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at $29.3 billion.

So the NIH budget, which doubled between 1998 and 2003, is being allowed to stagnate, while the administration tries to put the physical sciences on their own doubling path. According to Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, which works to increase science funding across the board: “There’s the sense that ‘We took care of the NIH, now we’re going to take care of the physical sciences’. The sad part of that is we’re losing the effect of the doubling on the NIH.”

“I think it was a mistake to double the NIH budget in just five years without a plan to change how that money was spent,” says John Marburger, the president’s science adviser, referring to the ramp-up begun under President Clinton in 1998. “We’re now seeing the consequences.” He says that the ramp-up in the smaller physical-sciences budget will be slower, and thus offer more sustainable gains.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will meet Bush’s wishes for the physical sciences; last year it didn’t, instead slashing the proposed competitiveness increases. The president’s annual budget request sets off a months-long appropriations process in which Congress sets the final numbers; those generally track relatively close to what the president asked for (see ). But in an election year like this, Berdahl notes, partisanship increases. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House science committee, called the request “an incomplete and short-sighted plan” that did not include enough money to spur education and innovation in industry. So it is entirely possible that congressional Democrats, waiting to see who becomes president in November, could force another end-of-year budget showdown.

At the DOE, the president’s budget would boost spending for ‘clean-coal’ technologies from $520 million to $648 million, even though the department is pulling the plug on FutureGen, a flagship carbon-capture and -storage project. Nuclear energy would increase from $755 million to $932 million including $302 million for reprocessing technologies related to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, over which Bush and Congress have battled.

After a year of hardship, fusion and high-energy physics would see significant gains within the DOE’s Office of Science. The appropriations bill passed in December held almost no money for ITER, the international fusion research reactor in France, and left physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, facing lay-offs and mandatory unpaid leave. The new budget holds $214 million for ITER and would allow Fermilab to resume work on the NO?A neutrino research programme. There would also be $35 million for research for the proposed International Linear Collider, another victim of the December settlement. “It’s a good budget for particle physics,” says Fermilab director Pier Oddone.

Over at the NSF, officials were also upbeat. With $6.85 billion budgeted, the agency would receive a 13.6% boost over the 2008 levels approved by Congress. “I am optimistic that the NSF will regain its budget momentum in 2009,” says Arden Bement, the agency’s director. In line with the emphasis on physical-sciences research, three directorates — computer sciences, physics and engineering — would see their budgets increase by nearly 20%. Large facilities such as the ALMA telescope array would continue on track. And overall the agency expects to issue 1,370 more research grants if the request is approved, boosting the application success rate slightly from 21% to 23%.

The third core agency for the competitiveness agenda, NIST, is in line to receive $634 million — 22% more than it got in 2008, with new initiatives lined up for nanotechnology and bioscience measurements.

Meanwhile, at the NIH, director Elias Zerhouni says that the agency fared well compared with many others such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would see a $433 million, or 7%, hit. “We’re very thankful in the context of this very difficult budget that we’re seeing some increases and no decrease” at the NIH, Zerhouni says. (As happened last year, $300 million of the $29.3 billion agency total will not be seen by researchers, but will be transferred to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.)

Under Bush’s proposal, the NIH would fund essentially the same number of research grants as in 2008, and keep the proportion of new grants steady. Zerhouni predicts that the success rates for competing grants, which the agency puts at 19%, “will probably stay where they are or go down a little bit”. The NIH would also eliminate inflationary increases for existing grants.

Money in the budget for tiny increases at the NIH’s 27 individual institutes and centres depends on eliminating $111 million for the National Children’s Study, a project aiming to track influences on the health of 100,000 children from birth to age 21. The White House has repeatedly cancelled the study; Zerhouni says that the agency sees other issues as higher priorities, such as protecting investigator-initiated grants and funding for young investigators. But last year Congress reinserted the money.

“We’re looking at a continuation of a trend of essentially flat-funding for the NIH budget over the past four years,” says David Moore, a senior lobbyist with the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC. “When you couple that with biomedical inflation [currently put at 3.9%], we’re seeing a significant erosion of this nation’s medical research capacity.” Using the biomedical inflation figures produced by the Department of Commerce, the request would mark the sixth straight year of level or reduced spending at the NIH. Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, pronounced himself “staggered” by the Bush request. “The NIH’s absolute zero increase is going to strike very deeply into the heart of American research,” he says.

Over at NASA, things are looking up for those who look down. The agency is budgeting to reinstate three climate sensors that had previously been removed to the pilot mission for the next generation of weather and climate monitors, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. And following a recommendation from the US National Academies, the agency is planning to start five new Earth-observation missions in the next six years, including a satellite to measure soil moisture set for a 2012 launch, and a laser altimeter to measure ice thickness in 2015. Three other new missions, as prioritized by the academies’ report, will be announced soon, at a cost of $910 million over five years.

NASA’s budget request also includes $344 million in the next five years for three small lunar missions to be launched by 2014 — a dust monitor and two geophysical stations for the Moon’s poles that will form part of an international network. Asked whether the new lunar science represented a renewed commitment to Bush’s vision of future Moon exploration, NASA associate administrator for science Alan Stern said: “You could say, empirically, it does.”

Finally, NASA announced that work would begin on the next major astrophysics flagship launch: the Joint Dark Energy Mission. The project, also funded by the DOE, was ranked first by a recent National Academies report and may fly by 2015.

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