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January 12th, 2012

Why R&D did well in the federal FY12 budget and looking ahead to FY13

Published on January 12th, 2012 | By: Eileen De Guire

A general representation of how federal spending breaks down into categories. Credit: Congressional Budget Office.

We’ve been following the FY12 budget process and its favorable outcome for the science R&D community.

The Budget Control Act was signed into law last August and deficit reductions were required in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The graphic above from the Congressional Budget Office shows the distribution of spending categories in 2010. Presumably, 2011 and 2012 are similar.

A joint bipartisan committee, nicknamed the supercommittee, was formed last fall and tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. Its failure to do so by the Nov. 23, 2011 deadline automatically triggers $1.2 trillion in cuts starting in FY13 that will be split evenly between defense and non-defense programs, and will apply equally to mandatory and discretionary spending programs. The tortuous process that led to the agreement is summarized in this timeline put together by the New York Times.

So, why did science R&D funding fare relatively well in this year’s federal budget? In a recent Science article (Jan. 6, 2012), Jeffrey Mervis suggests three reasons.

First, he says, the country needs R&D to stay economically competitive. The steady mantra coming out of federal agencies has been innovation. Examples include NSF’s Innovation Corps, the Materials Genome Initiative and all of ARPA-E. In the article, Mervis quotes Barry Toiv of the Association of American Universities, who says, “The fact that we did all right suggests that legislators understand the importance of a strong research enterprise to the nation’s long-term economic health and that the government has a unique role to play.”

Second, the amounts are relatively small and the topic is politically safe. On this point Mervis talked to Joel Widder, who used to run NSF’s legislative affairs office and is now a lobbyist for the Oldaker Law Group in Washington, DC. Widder points out that increasing an agency’s R&D budget by a few percent does not have much impact on the massive federal deficit. The NSF is a good example. Its FY12 budget increased $165 million, while the most recent monthly budget report from the CBO estimated the federal deficit for Oct.-Dec. 2011 at $320 billion. And, there is little political risk. Mervis quotes Widder, “Nobody gets criticized for being a supporter of science.”

Third, federal funding for science is decentralized. R&D budgets are funded agency-by-agency. Each agency gains some natural protection from the congressional committees that oversee it and from other constituencies. Also, decentralization creates obstacles to funding cuts: A quiver of arrows is needed rather that one big spear to throw at something like a “Department of Science.”

Mervis warns, though, that the Budget Control Act requires about $1 trillion in spending cuts starting with FY13 and going through FY 2021. He says about $35 billion per year would disappear just from nondefense programs, including science spending, which could mean cuts to R&D budgets of around 7% per year.

There are uncontrolled variables like the possibility of Congress finding a way to meet the requirements of the Budget Control Act and the surprises that are part of an election year. But, Mervis is a science optimist and closes his article with “… recent history suggests that science will survive.”


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