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NSF Facing Budget Cuts

AIBS Washington Watch, August 2004

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg

At the end of 2002, scientists had cause to celebrate: Congress had approved a massive 15 percent increase in research funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and passed legislation that would authorize similar increases for the agency for five years, putting the nation's home of basic research on a doubling track. Both events were viewed as big victories, given the post-9/11 budget situation. Now, however, less than two years later, the Bush administration has announced that it plans to cut funding for NSF in fiscal year (FY) 2006.

The budget figures for NSF have been available since the release of the FY 2005 budget in February, but administration officials had previously maintained that the funding levels for future years were merely based on a formula and would not be binding. However, on 19 May, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to federal agencies instructing them to use the figures for FY 2006 that were in the FY 2005 budget.

The outcome of this guidance is clear: Science funding will be cut beginning in 2006. According to the Bush administration's proposed budget, the NSF budget would shrink by 2 percent in FY 2006 to a proposed level of $5.6 billion, a figure that is 34 percent and nearly $3 billion less than the one that Congress and the administration had agreed upon for FY 2006 in the NSF Reauthorization Act of 2002. This cut would negate the proposed 2 percent increase in NSF funds for next year (FY 2005); FY 2006 funding would be the same as the FY 2004 level. In fact, the funding for FY 2006 would be lower than this year's level because of inflation. The news gets worse: In the five years covered in the administration's budget (2005–2009), NSF would not reach the level of funding originally proposed for FY 2005, thus dashing any hopes for making up for the cuts in future years.

The news is particularly disheartening to science advocates who worked diligently to get the NSF doubling legislation passed in 2002. Scientific societies and science coalitions are working feverishly behind the scenes in Washington to get the best possible increase for NSF for FY 2005. As in previous years, the Coalition for National Science Funding (www.cnsfweb.org) worked with the office of Representative Vernon Ehlers (R–MI) to gather signatures for a letter about NSF's FY 2005 budget. After six weeks and countless phone calls, the coalition helped persuade 157 members of Congress to sign a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee requesting their "support to fund NSF at the highest possible level." The letter acknowledges budget constraints faced by appropriators, but warns, "We cannot afford to sacrifice the research and education which current and future generations need to ensure their economic prosperity and domestic security."

Those words echo the sentiment expressed by Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R–MD) upon release of the proposed FY 2005 budget: "As a scientist and engineer, I am deeply concerned that basic research and development funding is considered an easy target for budget cutting because superficially it doesn't appear to provide any tangible, immediate benefits." Bartlett called such cuts "foolish" and "the equivalent of a farmer eating the seed corn. When we fail to invest in R&D, we guarantee smaller harvests and fewer innovations."

In a budget situation this tight, scientists themselves — particularly those in the biological sciences — need to join the chorus of voices protesting the cuts, says Nadine Lymn, public affairs director of the Ecological Society of America. In addition to spreading the general message about the importance of science funding, biologists need to counter "the false notion that all biological sciences have benefited from the tremendous budget increases enjoyed by the National Institutes of Health."

Lymn, who cochairs the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC; www.esa.org/besc), says the biological community can't afford not to step up its policy activities. This March several BESC members participated in Congressional Visits Day, an annual event that brings scientists to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress, yet BESC is already planning a second event for biologists to visit their members of Congress. Lymn believes that it is imperative that the biological community "be vocal about its needs and priorities and articulate why the country needs to invest in our research.... BESC, together with the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions, hope to achieve just that when they join forces and hit the Hill in September." As proposal success rates in the Biological Sciences Directorate at NSF have fallen to the lowest level (26 percent) since 1996 and remain below the average proposal success rate in the agency, biologists would do well to attend the event.

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg (email: ) is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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