Editorial: The OMB and Science Funding

Richard T. O'Grady

In early December 2001, the science community learned that the Office of Management and Budget was proposing to transfer approximately $35 million in base funding for three Smithsonian Institution research facilities to the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2003. The transferred funds would go into NSF’s competitive grants program. The proposed transfers involved the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. OMB’s decisions had been made with little apparent regard for what the Science Commission, recently appointed by Congress to help guide reorganization of the Smithsonian’s science programs and yet to file its report, might have to say. Furthermore, OMB planned to transfer to NSF a significant portion of the funding for the national research program of the US Geological Survey’s Water Resources Division and the entire Sea Grant program of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Through letters and other venues, AIBS worked with other scientific associations to argue against these proposals. As this issue of BioScience goes to press, AIBS has heard that OMB may now be reconsidering its proposal to transfer the Smithsonian funds and will seek a review of the competitiveness of the programs involved; we are not aware of similar developments for USGS and NOAA funds.

AIBS recognizes NSF’s excellent record of supporting the nation’s research, and AIBS wholeheartedly supports NSF. We also recognize the need for the nation to fund its scientific research efficiently. Our opposition to OMB’s proposals is based upon concerns for the nation’s continuing access to scientific information of the kind generated by the programs affected. In some cases, a funding transfer—especially that of base funding to a competitive grants environment—may be tantamount to termination of a program. For example, it is hard to see NSF, which is mandated by law to fund basic research, funding Sea Grant’s applied research agenda, which serves the needs of the marine industry, government, resource managers, and the public. Likewise, NSF might not fund much of the research in the USGS Water Resources Division, not because that research lacks value or high quality but because it is applied research.

We have particular concerns about OMB’s treatment of STRI and SERC. Based on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, STRI dates back to 1923 and is a valuable long-term ecological research center. Long-term research is essential to the study of ecological and biological phenomena, but long-term funding to support that research is hard to come by. Few of the 24 sites funded by NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research program, founded in 1980, date back more than five decades. SERC, too, has long-term value. Established in 1965, its 2600 acres of land and 12 miles of undeveloped shoreline serve as a natural laboratory for long-term research, including wetlands biology, fisheries management, and global climate change. SERC also plays a significant role in educating students at all levels, from kindergartners through postdoctoral fellows.

Changes to any scientific program must be undertaken with great care. Once under way, changes are difficult to reverse—projects lose momentum and continuity, staff scatter. Hence our advice to OMB: Think this through, consult with the scientific community, evaluate the fit of program to agency, and, if necessary, plan a careful transition to ensure that we aren’t left without a scientific infrastructure that meets our nation’s needs.

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