Center for American Progress

Faith in Science: Bush Displays Surprising Science Leadership

Faith in Science: Bush Displays Surprising Science Leadership

By signing the America COMPETES Act, the president shows he can occasionally be pro-science, writes Michael Rugnetta.

It’s comforting to finally see that the Bush administration can—at times—be pro-science, or at least not completely anti-science. That’s why we here at the Progressive Bioethics Initiative actually have something nice to say about the Bush administration’s policy on science.

Last Thursday, President Bush signed legislation that authorizes $33.6 billion in funding over the next three years to improve scientific research and education. The bipartisan America COMPETES Act—Congress’s legislative response to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2007 report “Rising above the Gathering Storm” —would provide for a variety of programs, including competitive grants for increasing the number of highly qualified teachers serving high-need schools, grants to expand access to AP and IB courses, and two new grant programs to enhance math education in elementary and secondary school.

As detailed by the House Committee on Science and Technology, the major government agencies that will benefit from this funding are the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

We are glad to see that the Bush administration took the National Academy’s recommendations under serious consideration and signed off on Congress’s bipartisan effort to authorize funding for the much needed advancement of scientific research and education in the United States.

But this act only authorizes funds, so more excitement is in store when Congress returns from its August recess and begins the appropriations process. The president has expressed some reservations about the act, claiming in a White House statement that “[t]he bill creates over 30 new programs that are mostly duplicative or counterproductive.”

In fact the president’s FY2009 budget request will only seek funding for “those authorizations that support the focused priorities of the American Competitiveness Initiative.” Bush announced the ACI in his 2006 State of the Union Address with the goal of increasing investment in research, education, and entrepreneurship. As part of ACI, the Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Science and Technology Policy later produced a report with detailed recommendations for policy.

The president also recommends that Congress continue to work on other components of ACI, such as making permanent the Research and Development Tax Credit and authorizing the Adjunct Teacher Corps Programs, which would put 30,000 math and science professionals into America’s classrooms. Those proposals still must survive the appropriations process.

Some of the difficulties with the appropriations process may arise from funding for research programs that fall outside the ACI. One is the NIH, which is where the president’s budget recommendations from earlier in the year were surprisingly deficient, cutting NIH R&D funding 1.2 percent from fiscal year 2007.  This would mean that NIH funding will have fallen 7.6 percent since its 2004 peak—a 12 percent decrease given inflation.  Additionally, non-defense R&D would fall short of the 2.4 percent inflation rate, with an increase of only 1.9 percent.  The president recommended a total fiscal year 2008 R&D portfolio of $143 billion, which is a 1.3 percent increase from FY2007, but the first decrease in real terms since 1996.  In short, the increases in ACI programs, defense and non-defense physical science research do not offset the decrease in NIH and biomedical funding.

Even more disheartening, the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted in the preview of their FY2008 R&D report that “the federal investment in basic and applied research would fall for the fourth year in a row in real terms”—a 7.4 percent drop from its 2004 peak. Nevertheless, the AAAS remains hopeful due to the more than $1 billion in additional funding that the Senate and House are poised to appropriate to the NIH, which would make for an increase from FY2007.  But they are wary of the president exercising his veto power as he has threatened to do if any 2008 appropriations bills exceed his request; and if Congress cannot get a two-thirds majority to override the veto, it may have to cut its proposed R&D increases.

Turning back to ACI, one other program that might be more heavily contested is the establishment of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E.

In their report, the National Academy’s reason for proposing the creation of ARPA-E was that it is needed to fund “energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support and in which risk may be high but success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation.” In other words, the current and foreseeable challenges of the U.S. energy situation are significant enough to justify a new agency for “transformative research.”

The report further states that “ARPA-E would provide an opportunity for creative out-of-the-box transformational research that could lead to new ways of fueling the nation and its economy, as opposed to incremental research on ideas that have already been developed.” Clearly, there is a strong case for why ARPA-E would be a useful and worthy addition to the federal government’s research endeavors.

The administration nevertheless criticized the Senate version of the bill. They argue that “a new bureaucracy at the DOE would drain resources from priority basic research efforts.” Yet the House-Senate conference version—which is what the president signed—did separate the program from DOE. ARPA-E would have a separate budget line from DOE appropriations, report directly to the Secretary of Energy instead of being buried in another bureau, and not operate at the expense of other DOE programs.

Hopefully, there is a reasonable and substantive explanation for the administration’s continued criticism of ARPA-E, in spite of the House bill’s modifications. The lingering question is how much of that criticism comes from practical considerations and how much of it comes from political ones?

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