Republican Fiscal Plan Could Slash Science Budgets

The Republican Party swept to victory in the midterm elections on a platform of small government and reduced spending. For science agencies that depend on federal funding, those promises could result in significant budget cuts, experts say.

The GOP's 2010 agenda pledges to cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bank bailout levels. According to a statement from the office of House Republican leader John Boehner (R–OH), the Republicans' goal is to cut non-military discretionary spending back to 2008 levels.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) crunched the numbers and discovered that under the Republican plan, research and development budgets at non-military agencies would be cut by 12.3 percent for 2011 to $57.8 billion, from $65.9 billion requested by the Obama administration.

The agencies hardest hit by the proposed rollback would be the ones that have seen the biggest increases in the past few years, Patrick Clemins, the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS, told LiveScience. In particular, Obama's emphasis on science and technology was a boon to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The NSF, which funds about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research in America, would lose 18.8 percent of its request 2011 budget under the Republican proposal, or $1 billion. The DOE's Office of Science would be set back $835 million, or 18 percent of its requested budget.

Meanwhile, NOAA, which is involved in weather and climate monitoring as well as fisheries management and coastal and marine research, would lose $324 million, or 34 percent of what the Obama administration requested for its budget in 2011. NIST, whose mission is to advance measurement science, standards and technology, would lose $207 million, almost 30 percent of its budget request.

Also facing cuts under the plan is the National Institutes of Health, which would lose 9.1 percent, or $2.9 billion of its requested 2011 budget.

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In the past seven years, total inflation-adjusted federal funding for research and development has remained flat even as the total federal budget has climbed, Clemins said. Different administrations shift money around based on their priorities (Obama has been interested in climate research and renewable energy, which is why agencies like NOAA and the DOE have benefited during his tenure), but total funding changes very little.

Both parties agree on spending cuts, Clemins said. The Obama administration had already warned agencies to build 5 percent cuts into their proposed 2012 budgets relative to 2011. The question is simply how soon and to what extent those cuts will come.

"It's just going to be a wait-and-see kind of thing," Clemins said. "Science funding is pretty well-supported by both sides of the aisle, but in these times of budget cuts it really comes down to priorities, and it's really unclear how high on the list research and development funding will be."

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.