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Scientists Pleased with Obama's 2012 Budget Proposal

For the most part, federal investment in science fared well this afternoon (Feb. 14) when President Obama released his 2012 budget proposal, a plan to spend $3.73 trillion while reducing the scope of the federal deficit.

In the science realm, there more winners than losers in the comprehensive government spending proposal. National Science Foundation funding went up by 13 percent, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost 9 percent. Considering soaring federal deficits and calls for fiscal austerity, advocates for science were generally pleased. [Infographic: Science in Obama's 2012 Budget Proposal]

"I guess I am surprised in some sense that there is as much good news in this budget as there is," said Michael McPhaden, president of the American Geophysical Union, a nonprofit professional organization with the goal of promoting earth and space science.

The bright spots he saw included not only the NSF funding, which Obama increased to $7.8 billion, but a similar increase that would bring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $5.5 billion.

The Department of Energy's funding for energy research and development increased by almost 44 percent. This increase was largely driven by a priority placed on clean energy technology and climate change science, one of the priorities that administrators from the Office of Science and Technology Policy laid out during a briefing this afternoon.

Others were education, including a $100 million "down payment" to train 100,000 new science and math teachers over the next decade. Defense included cybersecurity efforts and $6 billion for research to counter weapons of mass destruction. An initiative to expand national access to wireless also figured in, with a $3 billion innovation fund drawn from proceeds from a wireless spectrum auction.

"If you have been listening to the president for the last two weeks, it wasn’t horribly surprising," said Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But while the budget proposal echoed Obama's State of the Union themes of education, infrastructure and innovation, the numbers attached were somewhat surprising.

"I don't think people were expecting to see R&D increases of that magnitude," Clemins said.   

Not everyone benefited. Research and development in the Department of Defense was cut by just under $5 billion, and the CDC lost about $600 million.

Others, like NASA, stayed relatively flat, at $18.7 billion.

"For NASA, I see this as a budget that continues the major themes of last year. It largely protects science," said Alan Stern, a private aerospace consultant and former associate administrator for science at NASA. Among other things, it contains the funds to wrap up the space shuttle program and to look toward human exploration beyond Earth orbit, he said. "I think given the fiscal constraints, at first brush this budget is a good one," Stern told LiveScience.

The budget for 2012 is far from set. Both houses of Congress must agree to a spending plan, and changes are certain. 

"We are kind of looking at this budget release as the high-water mark and planning on it going down," Clemins said prior to the release today. "How much it goes down just depends on where it fits in the priorities of Congress."

Republicans, who control the House, have been calling for budget cuts for the still-unsettled 2011 budget – a proposal made last week would cut $100 billion from the proposal Obama made more than a year ago. (The federal government's fiscal year begins Oct. 1.)

The Obama administration acknowledged a need for fiscal restraint when releasing the 2012 proposal.

"The challenge that we face as a country is that we need to get from a place that is just unsustainable to a place where we can pay our bills and have a stable, secure future," Jack Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a video posted on the White House blog.

For 2011, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the United States is running a $1.5 trillion deficit, roughly 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (a measure of economic productivity). Obama's proposal would bring the deficit down to about 3 percent of the GDP by the middle of the decade, according to Lew.  

Not surprisingly, it did not go far enough for Republicans.

"The president's budget spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much – stifling job growth today and leaving our children with a diminished future," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, in response to Obama's 2012 proposal.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health remains roughly flat under Obama's proposal, but Mary Woolley, president and chief executive officer of Research!America, an organization that promotes health research, was not optimistic.

"We basically applaud the president for making medical health and scientific research a priority," Woolley said. "Our huge concern is with the House proposals that would compromise that priority."

The resolution regarding the 2011 budget would cut about $1.4 billion from the NIH funding, according to Clemins' analysis.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the proposed 2012 funding levels for the NSF, NOAA and NASA. They are $7.8, $5.5 and $18.7 billion, respectively.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.