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February 14th, 2013

Billions in federal R&D ‘recovery’ monies still on the table in the US?

Published on February 14th, 2013 | By: Eileen De Guire

DOE’s Recovery Act project status as of Feb. 13, 2013. Over $6 billion is still unspent. Source: Recovery.gov.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the European Commission had made a strategic decision support focused research on graphene to the tune of about €1 billion (~$1.35 billion). That’s a lot of money, and, as Eileen reported, it is meant to support work in about 200 institutions spread over 15 EU member states, with the mandate to deliver “deliver 10 years of world-beating science.”

That’s a significant and bold move by the EU, but, to provide some needed perspective on the size of the EU’s €1 billion bet, consider something that leaves me more than a little agog: There is still about $7 billion in science-related Recovery Act monies sitting unspent on the books in Washington.

The existence of this $7 billion isn’t a secret. It’s in plain sight on federal Recovery.gov website (look under the “Where is the money going?? tab, and select “Recipient and Agency Data”) that the Obama administration created to provide weekly updates, agency-by-agency, on the spending of the American Recover and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. I reached the $7 billion figure by assuming that most of the ARRA science funding is contained in the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Click on those links and you will see that DOE has not paid out $6.29 billion (17.5 percent of its total ARRA allocation); likewise, NSF has not paid out over $600 million (20.5% of its allocation). (If one also were to lump in agencies, such as the DOD, the amount of unspent funds go even higher).

Why hasn’t the money been spent? One apparent reason is that, for example, 86 approved DOE projects have not even begun and 368 are less than 50 percent completed. The NSF has 23 projects not started and 190 that have not passed their halfway mark.

Of course, I truly understand that there were reasonable delays in getting some proposals vetted and other unexpected delays in getting projects ramped up. But as I have been following the glacial spending patterns for over 3 years, I’ve always tried to emphasize that the whole point of the the ARRA was to pump money into the affected sectors quickly. Even the DOE understood from the beginning that the idea was to provide a rapid stimulus to science and engineering.

I could be wrong on this, but my understanding is that because the unspent ARRA monies were already appropriated, they are unaffected by the sequestration battles (and if I am wrong, shame on agency officials for leaving these monies vulnerable). And, regarding sequestration, I think it has been fairly well documented that many of the sequestration scenarios spell bad news for the R&D community, a situation that begs even more for the balance of the ARRA funds to be spent as soon as possible.

My suggestion: With billions of ARRA money unspent, shouldn’t our science and engineering leaders do something significant with it? I know this will never happen, but if I was made the ARRA emperor, I would find a way to cancel all the unstarted projects, put together a team to cull the weakest from the list of unfinished projects and, finally, form a blue-ribbon committee, a la the EU, to find and fund to the tune of several billion dollars one or two strategic grand challenges to “deliver 10 years of world-beating science” in the US. (Imagine what $2 billion in focused funding for the Materials Genome Initiative could do!)

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