The United States of Science

President's Budget Marks a Turning Point for Science

The Obama administration’s budget for 2011 will be remembered by economic and science historians as a turning point for our nation in the 21st century, writes Jonathan D. Moreno.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in April 2009. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in April 2009. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Read also: A First-Place Budget for Science: Administration Proposes Foundational Investments in Innovation

When future American economic and science historians assess the course of the nation in the early 21st century, they might well identify February 1, 2010, as a landmark date. The reason is the juxtaposition of numbers in the Obama administration’s federal budget for fiscal year 2011, beginning this October. One set of numbers tackles the threat posed by ever-rising federal deficits to our country’s long-term stability, and the other set provides the financial wherewithal for sustained economic recovery based on science and education.

Behind the numbing fiscal calculations in the budget, the president faces up to the reality of a national government that must bring down a fiscal deficit that stretches as far as the eye can see. What is truly sobering is the possibility that our long-term budget challenges might lead to a crisis of confidence in the U.S. economy that could at some time not only wreak more havoc on the financial markets, but lead to the kind of unrest that fosters political extremism and international conflict. The steps taken by the Obama administration in the FY 2011 budget are the right way to go. The new budget will boost our economy in the short term to ensure tax revenues rise amid a broad economic recovery while also trimming government spending where it is least effective to bring down the deficit over the medium to long term.

The previous administration’s feckless fiscal irresponsibility threatens the power and prosperity of our country just as its equally feckless management of the economy led to the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the “lost decade” of prosperity for most Americans. President Barack Obama’s new budget tackles those inherited problems, but what is most striking is that he and his administration see that the best hope for our economy and working Americans lies in creating new wealth and, just as important, a new sense of national purpose.

The administration signals this vision through increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as increased funding for education and improvements in the No Child Left Behind Act. The increases in science and education spending are meager given the size of the budget—an additional $3.7 billion for federal research and development and an additional $3 billion for education in a multitrillion-dollar budget—but they are significant against the backdrop of flat lines or even cuts elsewhere.

Also revealing is that the Bush administration’s cheap public relations gimmick, which touted a return to the Moon without substantial benefits for science, has been dropped in favor of commercial ventures for manned spaceflight and new technological development to provide a lunar source of rocket fuel and other innovations. This is sound economics and sound science—and an example of trimming government spending even in the science sector when cuts are warranted.

We’ve observed in Science Progress on several occasions that the founders of our country appreciated the new nation’s need for strength in science, oftentimes more than some of their benighted successors in government. That’s why it is encouraging that we have a president and an administration with a vision in the founders’ spirit. Now Congress needs to do its job to ensure that the United States of Science rescues America—and perhaps the assumptions behind the global stability on which we depend—from a decade of financial mismanagement.

Read also: A First-Place Budget for Science: Administration Proposes Foundational Investments in Innovation

Jonathan D. Moreno is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor-in-chief of the Center’s online magazine Science Progress. Dr. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology of Science and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow