In This Issue
Engineering Crossroads
March 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 1
The Bridge, Volume 28, Number 1 - Spring 1998

Ensuring Stability in U.S. R&D Funding (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.

Today, the engineering community has good reason to be optimistic about the future. As a result of last year's balanced budget agreement and the booming U.S. economy, the government will likely produce a surplus this year for the first in time in nearly 3 decades. That's not only good news for the country, but it's also good news for those who believe that federal funding of basic research, which is typically too high risk for the business community to undertake, is essential to keeping America on the cutting edge in science and technology.

As you can imagine, there is no shortage of ideas on ways to spend this surplus. I believe at least a portion of it must go to either retire the national debt or cut taxes. Others would like to spend more on highway funding or use the surplus to shore up entitlements like social security. If the economy continues to grow, and Congress continues to prioritize spending, we will avoid the threat of budget deficits and out-of-control entitlement spending, both of which in the past have left federal funding for science and engineering at the bottom of the priority list. We must focus on ensuring that funding for those programs remains stable for the long term.

Last year, Republican and Democratic members of the Science Committee worked within the requirements of the balanced budget agreement to pass legislation to strengthen America's science and engineering enterprise. The Committee established the following criteria to help it meet the requirements of a balanced budget while at the same time ensuring the best use of the taxpayer dollars for essential research. First, federal research and development must focus on essential programs that are long term, high risk, well managed, and have a great potential for scientific discovery. Second, federal research and development need to be highly relevant and tightly focused on agency missions, with accountability and procedures for evaluating quality and results. Where possible, international, industry, and state science partnerships need to be nurtured as a way to leverage our federal dollars. Third, programs that do not meet these standards should be eliminated or scaled back in order to enable new initiatives in promising areas.

Using the criteria established last year, Congress increased science funding above the president's 1998 budget request in several important areas. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy science programs, Environmental Protection Agency research and development programs, and the National Weather Service all received increases above what the president had requested. These agencies' research programs met the criteria of being both high risk and long term.

Of the nearly dozen authorization bills passed, including those previously discussed, five have already been signed into law by the president. Action is expected on a number of the remaining bills before the end of the year. Among these is a bill to fund transportation research and development, including research that should enable the construction of cheaper, longer-lasting highways. This bill will probably be rolled into a larger multiyear transportation bill, which will be considered this year. The Congress also passed and the president has signed a research and engineering bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. This bill will, among other things, allow continued research and development into airport security and aircraft safety.

This year, President Clinton has joined Congress in recognizing the need to adequately invest in scientific research, embracing some of the criteria established by the Committee in his budget. As with the Science Committee's budget that preceded it, in fiscal year 1999, the president's budget spends the largest percentage of nondefense R&D on long-term, high-risk basic research.

Unfortunately, despite generous outlays in fiscal year 1999, overall spending for research and development in the administration's budget plan decreases in inflation-adjusted dollars after this year. Furthermore, the administration pays for a good portion of the science budget with unspecified reductions in other discretionary spending, uncertain tax increases, and uncollected money from the tobacco settlement. This approach, in my view, will jeopardize the future robustness of American science and technology. Even in fiscal year 1999, the president's proposed increases assume revenues will come from tobacco legislation and from cuts to veterans medical care; I have little confidence in this assumption.

I would also urge caution in supporting S.1305, the National Research Investment Act of 1998, which would double nondefense R&D spending over the next 10 years, or similar bills that promise large increases in federal funding of research without also specifying ways to pay for the growth. Legislation like this threatens to return us to the empty authorization bills of the past, which were routinely ignored by the appropriators, even when passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president. And in the end, there was no additional funding for science.

I fear S.1305 will give legislators an easy vote to point to as support for federal research when they are visited by members of the science and engineering communities in the coming weeks. But, when these same legislators are faced with the difficult choice of whether to fund science and engineering or other worthwhile programs such as veterans medical facilities and highways, how many of these members will side with science?

We must build on the credibility the Science Committee has established in the past year. While I, too, support increasing the federal budget for science and will be working with the leadership in Congress to accomplish that, I believe that future funding for science must be justified with a coherent, long-term science policy that is consistent with the need for a balanced budget. Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) and I have asked Science Committee Vice-Chairman Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) to conduct a study of our nation's science policy and to review our nation's science and math education programs. The ultimate goal is to craft a long-term science and technology plan that can bolster America's commitment to science and help build a sustainable political consensus for federal research funding in the areas of science and engineering. I welcome input into this process from readers of The Bridge.

For those of us who want to ensure a stable funding environment for science and engineering, it is imperative that we work together to develop support among the public and elected officials. Scientists and engineers need to get out and talk to their local communities about the important work they do, work that makes America the most technologically advanced country in the world. I also urge scientists and engineers, as I do myself, to encourage our young people to study the sciences, mathematics, and technology. Our nation faces many challenges that can only be met by enhancing the country's scientific and technical base and by ensuring that the children coming out of our schools are up to the challenges of the next millennium. I commend the science and engineering communities for their efforts to build a will within society for maintaining our investment in science and engineering. I urge these communities to continue to take a proactive role as Congress goes through the budget and appropriations process.

About the Author:Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is chairman of the House Science Committee in the U.S. Congress.