This time, the wolf may really be at the door. A war in the Middle East, stepped-up homeland security, tax cuts, and rising health-care costs have produced a deficit of $413 billion. As postelection Washington settles in for another season of policy and budget deliberations, 2005 may be the year that science—always dependent on government support—could take a financial beating.
Nonetheless, many billions will be forthcoming for research, and America’s scientific enterprise will survive. But it will lack the fiscal zip and buoyancy that has propelled things in recent decades. Gross spending on research and development exceeded $300 billion in government and private funding in 2004, but that number is misleading. Industry far outspends government in support of research and development, providing an estimated 64 percent of the total. And industry cash is concentrated on development, leaving government as the mainstay of university-based basic research. Big, bold, multiyear research like the Human Genome Project, hydrogen-fuel technology, and a manned Mars voyage are the types of programs most likely to suffer.
Signs of financial distress are already evident. In September the National Institutes of Health, long accorded bipartisan tender loving care on Capitol Hill, was voted a mere cost-of-living increase in the House and just a bit more in the Senate. Although Congress and the White House agreed in 2002 to double the budget of the National Science Foundation over five years, annual budget increases so far are too small to meet that goal. NASA, too, is feeling the pinch, as it juggles Mars planning, support of the troubled space shuttle fleet, lagging construction of the International Space Station, and an ambitious program of planetary exploration.
Meanwhile, virtually all growth in federal research spending has been consigned to bioterrorism, homeland security, and defense, leaving civilian research at a standstill. In preparing budgets that will soon be delivered to Congress for the next fiscal year, federal civilian agencies have been guided by a White House directive to cut spending.
The competition for federal funds is fierce. Science must vie with numerous politically powerful sectors that depend on what’s known as the discretionary budget—funding that requires regular congressional approval. These include defense, veterans, housing for the poor, and federal aid to education—all better organized and financed and more combative than science in fighting budget wars.
Although we’ve heard these worrisome warnings many times before from congressional friends of science, research leaders, and university lobbyists, Congress has always scraped up needed cash at the last minute in previous years. But a repeat rescue looks doubtful this time around.