US Science Funding: 4 More Years of the Same?

science instruments
(Image credit: Credit: Irochka |

In recent years, federal funding for science has been tight, with flat or even declining agency budgets when adjusted for inflation.

After the smoke cleared on Tuesday's (Nov. 6) heated election, the power dynamics in Washington remained largely unchanged, raising the question: Can the science community expect more of the same?

"Having an Obama administration versus a Romney administration may lead to some differences, but for the most part, I think things haven't changed much from where they were a week ago," said Matt Hourihan, R&D budget and policy program director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

President Barack Obama maintained the White House; Democrats kept control of the Senate while Republicans kept ahold of the House of Representatives. Overall, only a handful of seats appear to have changed party hands.

The biggest question, say observers from the science community, is how Washington will balance the need to address the federal deficit against spending on research — which both sides have said they value as a means of economic growth, improving lives and advancing knowledge. [Graphic: Science Funding in the Federal Budget]

Future cuts?

A looming deadline gives deficit reduction particular urgency. If Washington does not reach a deficit-reduction agreement by the start of the new year, the Budget Control Act of 2011 requires spending cuts that include sharp reductions in funding for research. At the same time, tax cuts are also set to expire.

"Both sides claim they want to jettison sequestration" — the mandatory cuts — "the question is what replaces it," said Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and programs at Research!America, an advocacy organization. "The president has said he wants tax increases on the rich. The idea the House would accept that is hard to believe. … The compromise is probably going to be involve some discretionary spending cuts."

However, science funding is included in discretionary spending, a category that includes programs such as defense, education and transportation. This category does not include mandatory expenses, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and others. [6 Politicians Who Got the Science Wrong]

The biggest question, said Robert Cook-Deegan, research professor of genome ethics, law and policy at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, will be how the House Republican leadership chooses to act: Will they continue on their path opposing Obama, a conflict that threatened to shut down the federal government and, later, send it into default, or will they cooperate? "It is their choice to make," said Cook-Deegan, who is also the author of "The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome" (W. W. Norton and Co. Inc.,1996).

Since Tuesday’s (Nov. 6) election, some Republicans have struck a more conciliatory tone. John Boehner, the House Speaker, spoke of the need for cooperation and signaled a willingness to consider increased tax revenue as part of the solution, according to ABCNews.

Past precedent

While it's not possible to predict future federal budgets for research and development, the recent past has been lean. Since 2010, nondefense research and development has declined by 5 percent when adjusted for inflation, Hourihan said, noting that defense research and development has taken a larger hit.

The general dynamic has been for the Obama administration to seek significant increases in certain areas, such as to the NSF in 2011, but Congress, which has the final say, has been unwilling to grant them, according to Hourihan, who said: "I don't see any reasons why that would change."

Research received, at best, cursory mention during the presidential debates, and like Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney has spoken of the importance of federally funded research. However, his budget proposal, and one authored by his running mate Paul Ryan, demanded cuts in discretionary spending, a category that includes the budgets of agencies such as NASA, NSF and NIH. For NASA, the re-election should keep things on their current trajectory, which includes the goal of reaching an asteroid by 2025 and possibly a manned moon mission.

"Obama's re-election reduces somewhat the potential for destructive and counterproductive cuts in research funding (as implied by Ryan's budget), and for other science-related policies not strongly based on data and experience," Val Giddings, a senior fellow at The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, told LiveScience in an email. He said, however, that advocates would need to remain vigilante to protect science and innovation.

A nonpartisan issue

Aside from particular issues, such as stem cell research, science typically enjoys bipartisan support.

"There remains pretty clear bipartisan support for research funding in general," Hourihan said. "The difference now, at least in the current makeup, is the House has been much more interested in cutting discretionary budgets."

Concerns about the economy and jobs, which dominated the election, should strengthen the case for science, according to Cook-Deegan. "R&D is part of any economic growth policy, and everybody is going to agree with that, so both parties should have gotten a strong message," he said.

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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.