Looming 'lame duck session' by U.S. Congress raises fears for the future of R&D funding


This Halloween, many in the U.S. scientific community may be seized by the fear that promised increases for research and development (R&D) won't happen this year, potentially leaving many agencies operating at 2002 levels well into the New Year.

With an election looming and Congress in recess until November 12, the fate of record R&D increases will be decided--or not--during a "lame duck session," where election winners and losers are likely to jockey for power, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reported in its latest analysis.

Nearly half of all government R&D activities may thus be left in an unsettled state of "limbo," unless appropriation bills can be resolved in November, explained Al Teich, director of AAAS's Directorate for Science and Policy Programs, which produces the AAAS Update on FY 2003 Appropriations for Federal R&D.

"The outcome will depend on how the election turns out," said Teich. "If you look at the way the budget has been shaping up, things look pretty good, but it may or may not happen."

The U.S. Department of Defense is the only federal agency that has had its appropriation approved by Congress and signed into law by the President, Teich noted. The bill provides a record increase of 18.4 percent for defense R&D, bringing the total amount to nearly $59 billion.

But, none of the nation's civilian agencies' appropriations have been passed yet, so that half of federal R&D may stay stagnant--possibly until the first Spring thaw, some fear.

Before legislators went home two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate had proposed a record $117 billion for R&D in FY 2003 in the 13 appropriations bills it had drafted. But, it had approved only 3 of those bills. The House of Representatives, which had drafted 11 and approved 5 of the 13 appropriations, is "well on its way to matching the Senate's generosity," according to the AAAS analysis (www.aaas.org/spp/rd).

In its most recent actions, the House joined the Senate in drafting an authorization bill that would put the National Science Foundation (NSF) on track for a doubling of its budget over the next five years, although the AAAS analysis noted that "NSF's budget has a long way to go before becoming final ... and until then, the agency will have to operate at last year's funding levels."

The House bill that appropriates funding for the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would raise NSF funding for R&D by 14.5 percent--to a total of $4 billion, and provide substantial increases for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and for the Environmental Protection Agency. In the House proposal, NASA would receive a boost of 6.9 percent, giving it a total of $10.9 billion in R&D funding for FY 2003. EPA would receive a total R&D budget of $628 million for R&D, an increase of 8.3 percent in FY 2003.

The bill for funding these programs is now ready for floor debate, but if the House does not approve the bill by the end of the year, it will have to draft a new one, leaving the affected agencies operating on temporary funds. The situation is similar on the Senate side, according to the AAAS analysis. "Until a final FY 2003 appropriations bill is signed into law, which may not be until next year, all programs...will operate at FY 2002 funding levels on a series of continuing resolutions (temporary funding bills)."

The AAAS analysis notes that there are major differences between the House and Senate regarding funding levels for some of the agencies included in the VA-HUD bill, "and these differences could delay the eventual House-Senate conference.

"The good news for federal R&D funding is that both the House and the Senate have proposed substantial increases in the R&D portfolio for agencies such as NSF, NASA, and NIH," says Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. "The bad news is that the budget process is so deadlocked that it could be months before final budgets for these agencies are signed into law. Until then, agencies have to operate with last year's funding levels."

The House has yet to act on funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but under the Senate plan the R&D budget for NIH would increase dramatically--a 16.4 percent increase to $26.4 billion, in part because FY 2003 represents the final year in a five-year plan to double the agency's budget. Although the Bush Administration's original proposal for a federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had included an R&D portfolio of about $2.3 billion, legislators in both houses seem intent allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIH to retain control over funding for bioterrorism, reducing that total substantially.

"The House and the Senate ... would keep $2.0 billion in FY 2003 bioterrorism R&D funding within NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rather than transferring these programs to DHS as proposed," notes the AAAS analysis. "Without these transfers, DHS would take in only small R&D programs currently located in USDA, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Commerce. The current Senate proposal would create a new Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA) and an "Acceleration Fund" for homeland security technologies within DHS."

The analysis goes on to note that opposing views regarding protections for civil service workers employed by the proposed security agency, "threaten to scuttle or at least delay legislation to create DHS."

###

Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has worked to advance science for human well-being through its projects, programs, and publications, in the areas of science policy, science education and international scientific cooperation. With over 134,000 members from 130 countries and 272 affiliated societies comprising more than 10 million individual members, AAAS is the world's largest federation of scientists. The association also publishes Science, an editorially independent, multidisciplinary, weekly peer-reviewed journal that ranks as the world's most prestigious scientific journals. AAAS administers http://www.eurekalert.org, the online news service, featuring the latest discoveries in science and technology.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.