Making the Case for Science

The election is over and all eyes are on the 112th Congress and its next steps. The country faces a $1.3 trillion deficit (as a percentage of GDP, it’s the largest since WWII), high unemployment, a divided House and Senate, and the need to boost its competitive position in the world. Most agree that the nation must address the growing deficit, but the question remains how.

In the Pledge to America, Republicans campaigned on a promise to reduce federal discretionary spending to 2008 levels (see AAAS budget chart on the impact to science agencies). These cuts would reduce NIH’s budget for FY 2011 by almost $3 billion and NSF’s by over $1 billion. NIH Director Francis Collins predicted that a reduction of that magnitude would reduce the odds of winning a research grant to about ten percent, according to The Washington Post. Unfortunately, discretionary spending will likely remain the target of cuts despite the fact that it makes up only one-third of the federal budget.

During the week of November 8, 2010, the President’s bipartisan Fiscal Commission’s preliminary recommendations were leaked. The panel is calling for both spending cuts (domestic and military) and revenue increases. Congressional Quarterly reported that a senior budget aide for Pelosi responded to the recommendations by suggesting that a short-term stimulus to boost economic recovery might need to be paired with a long-term deficit reduction plan. Other budget experts have weighed in as well. James Horney, Director of Federal Fiscal Policy for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, commented that the economic recovery could be hindered if attempts are made to get the deficit down too fast.

Within this larger context, the debate over budgets for federal science agencies will occur. The FY 2011 federal appropriations bills are not complete, and the Continuing Resolution (CR) funding government programs will expire on December 3, 2010. By any account, the outlook is both blurry and bleak: CR that either cuts or extends current funding levels, or perhaps an omnibus bill that squeaks out very modest (i.e., 0.7% estimates by some) increases. That’s this year’s picture. Next year, the New Congress will be facing the same debts and deficits, and the new House majority is eager to fulfill its promises. Likewise, the Administration is pursuing its own belt-tightening. Non-security agencies have already been asked to cut budget proposals for FY 2012 by 5%.

Given the gloomy landscape, the scientific community must be prepared to make its case. Many friends of science from both sides of the aisle are departing Capitol Hill in a matter of weeks:  Sen. Arlen Specter, Vern Ehlers, David Obey, Bart Gordon, and a favorite of the behavioral and social sciences community, Brian Baird. Experts who track federal fiscal policy such as Gary Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, are advising science advocates to “talk up” their programs and “use language that resonates with the American people.” James Horney acknowledged that the $1.4 trillion deficit is troubling, but added at a recent meeting of scientific societies that: “This isn’t just money down the drain. It’s the government making sure the people get the programs they care about.”

The science community must build its case, while acknowledging that there are many competing priorities. On our side are the following facts:

  • Science remains a priority with the President
  • The doubling of NIH’s budget occurred the last time the Republicans had control of the House
  • The nation’s ability to remain competitive internationally will require investments in science
  • Science funding is felt back home, by constituents who work at, or are impacted by, universities and medical centers across the country

The path ahead is not clear, but scientists must be prepared to be a part of these discussions. Science advocates will track and respond to what is happening on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, but scientists will also need to be ready to act. There will be a great deal of scrutiny on what is funded – both individual awards that are made and large programs in agencies that fund our research. We will have to argue that science, including our science, is needed to advance the welfare of the country and its citizens. We will need to connect our research to the concerns of taxpayers: national security, health, and the education of our children. We will need to argue for a thoughtful, balanced approach to getting the country back on track.