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US science meets new paymasters

November 13, 2006 By Geoff Brumfiel This article courtesy of Nature News.

Democratic-led Congress could shake up funding for science agencies.

When the Democrats take control of Congress in January, they will also gain control over the nation's purse strings. Scientists should take note.

Federal agencies that fund the bulk of the nation's research, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, will all have to answer to new Congressional overseers. Some agencies will see little change in their budgets when control shifts from the Republicans to Democrats, says budget policy expert Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Historically, science funding has not been a partisan issue," he says.

But Democrats will probably leave lasting financial marks on some other areas of science. "It will be a fascinating time," says Joel Widder, a former Senate staffer now at Lewis-Burke Associates, a science lobby firm in Washington, DC.

The US budget process is famously complex: each February, President George W. Bush puts forth a proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Congress then codifies it into law through 24 appropriations subcommittees (12 each in the House of Representatives and the Senate), which write bills funding the myriad federal agencies. With control of both houses, the Democrats now automatically assume the chairmanships of these committees, giving them more control over how the budget bills are written and when they will be voted on.

Balancing act

It will be a fascinating time.
Joel Widder
Lewis-Burke Associates
The agency facing the biggest change may be NASA. In 2004, the Bush administration unveiled a plan to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars an enormously expensive proposition that has cut into scientific research at the agency.

The cuts have angered some Democratic critics, says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In particular, a number of influential senators, including David Obey (Democrat, Wisconsin) and Barbara Mikulski (Democrat, Maryland), have called for reform of the president's vision and for a more balanced programme.

The NSF, too, may see some substantial changes in non-research areas. Since 2004, the agency has seen its education budget slide by 15% to US$797 million. Widder believes that the Democrats, who are typically favourable towards education, will probably try to restore some of that money. But it may be difficult given the Iraq war and growing budget deficit, he notes.

Less clear is the fate of the NIH budget, which has stagnated in recent years after undergoing a doubling between 1998 and 2003. "The status quo has not been good to us over the past three years or so," says Jonathan Retzlaff, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Retzlaff says he is "optimistic" that the new Democratic congress will provide money for the agency, but adds that it will probably take a grassroots effort to win increases. "We need to show how important this is," he says.

Unfinished business

One area that science advocates hope won't be affected is the president's 'competitiveness initiative', which called for substantial increases to the NSF and Department of Energy (DOE) budgets. The president recommended a 14% increase to the DOE science budget this year, bringing it to $4.1 billion, and a similarly impressive 8% increase to the NSF's budget, which would raise it to just over $6 billion.

The Republican congress has largely followed the president's plan, although the final bills are not yet complete. Widder says he believes that, unlike NASA's Moon/Mars plans, the competitiveness boosts will continue to garner Democratic support. "I think at the end of the day it's mostly a bipartisan issue," he says.

But even before advocates worry about next year's budget, Congress must still complete the fiscal year 2007 budget. It was supposed to go into effect in October, but without approval, agencies are still operating on a 'continuing resolution' that funds them at the previous fiscal year's levels. If the resolution runs into January, then the Democrats will be faced with the awkward task of finishing a Republican budget.

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