Letting America Compete

Although the president’s proposed budget shortchanges basic research, hearing and new legislation could help put science back on track.

A recent hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee highlighted the need for increased support for basic research. As Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said, “the national budget reflects values and priorities.” Judging by our funding for science research, those priorities are wildly out of whack.

The lack of federal funding for science and basic research has been recognized both at home and abroad. “We are losing millions of dollars because of myopia,” Said Sen. Kerry. This sentiment was seconded by the witnesses, all heads of federal science agencies.

There was further consensus that the president’s proposed FY 2008 budget decreases funding for science and basic research, although the overall funding for non-defense and defense related research will increase. Dr. John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Innovation, summed up the consensus, saying that basic research projects “should be funded more than they are today.”

One pertinent example is stem cell research. As the Center for American Progress highlighted in a recent report, “Divided We Fail: The Need for National Stem Cell Funding,” “stem cell research has received minimal federal funding,” and “NIH funding [for this research] will actually decrease over the next two years to $641 million in FY 2007 and $639 million in FY 2008.” This serves a particular blow to basic research, which is almost entirely funded by the federal government since states lack the incentive to invest in research that lack more immediate gains.

U.S. competitiveness in all scientific areas is hit hard by decreased federal funding. Dr. Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation, said that, “it is important to stimulate interests in science and mathematics early through teaching,” but in order to prioritize, the “NSF should focus on research and development, not education.” Even though Dr. William Jeffrey of the National Institute of Standards and Technology said that the president’s FY 2008 budget is “strong,” he agreed that more work should be done to improve laboratories and facilities.

In response to this issue, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will soon begin hearings on the American COMPETES Act. Sen. Kerry described the bipartisan legislation as “a comprehensive competitiveness legislation that calls for increase in investment in basic research at NSF, and the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.”

The COMPETES Act was introduced last month due to bipartisan cooperation between the Senate commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee; Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. This bill uses educational programs to inspire students from kindergarten through graduate school to pursue math and science and ensures that the nation’s research enterprise is well-funded and focused on the needs of the nation. The bill would double funding for the National Science Foundation and significantly increase funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as for provisions related to ocean and atmospheric research and education.

Yet Dr. Marburger expressed concerned with the bill’s complexity, citing “the many new programs created in the bill, and how their focus and cost would divert resources.” In Sen. Sununu’s words, “too many programs involved can divert attention to NSF’s peer-review process.”

Chairman Kerry reemphasized the “important and critical” role of the three federal science entities in our economy and competitiveness. He said the hearing is a starting point to address the “repeated under-funding” problem. Indeed, stronger federal funding is necessary in order to drive basic research and ensure that the U.S. can remain competitive.

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