For the scientific community, one of the biggest disappointments in the budget compromise rushed through Congress late last year was the $400 million reduction in support for projects on the cutting edge of physics through the Energy Department's Office of Science. Hundreds of physicists are facing layoffs, and America's promised contribution of $160 million for international nuclear fusion research was cut to zero.
All this led the Energy Department's under secretary for science, Ray Orbach, to remark over the weekend that "we are now at a perilous moment in the history of funding for science in the United States."
The Energy Department's newly proposed $4.7 billion science budget for the 2009 fiscal year, beginning in October, is in some ways a case of "back to the future." The request represents an 18.8 percent increase over the current year's appropriation.
Support for the fusion project known as ITER is set at $214.5 million, with officials ruefully noting that last year's budget reversal "will impact the schedule and increase the U.S. costs." Funding is restored as well for Fermilab's NOvA detector and preparations for the International Linear Collider - two projects that went into limbo due to last year's congressional cuts.
Kei Koizumi, who analyzes science policy issues for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the broad strokes appeared to follow through on Bush's State of the Union pledge to beef up support for the physical sciences. He cautioned, however, that Fermilab and the Energy Department's other national laboratories will still have to weather some tough months ahead..
"If those labs can get through this year, and appropriations follow the requests, then starting next year, those labs and those physical programs will be in much better shape," Koizumi told me.
That's a big if. Over the past seven years, Bush has repeatedly faced criticism for his approach to scientific issues such as global warming and stem cells - but on this issue, he's the one who looks like the champion of science, while members of Congress come off looking like Neanderthals.
Big science could still lose out to congressional tinkering, driven by the desire to make up for cuts elsewhere. For example, this Reuters story notes that while proposed spending on high-energy physics, nuclear physics and basic energy sciences rose 19 percent to $1.57 billion, the budget for low-income energy assistance (through Health and Human Services) was reduced 22 percent to $2 billion.
Such perceived tradeoffs between science projects and other deserving programs could provide political cover for undeserved cutbacks in the months to come, Koizumi said. "The outlook for many domestic programs that are popular in Congress is pretty bleak," he acknowledged.
It will be up to researchers and their employers to make lawmakers and taxpayers more aware of the deep insights gained from big science, as well as practical payoffs ranging from biomedical breakthroughs to better industrial materials.
On other fronts, follow these links to learn more about the science funding contained in today's $3 trillion budget proposal:
- NASA: The space agency's budget request amounts to $17.6 billlion, up 1.8 percent from the current year's $17.3 billion. The request would set aside $173 million to encourage the development of new private-sector spaceships through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The funding plan continues America's course to put astronauts back on the moon in the 2018-2020 time frame, and it provides for 15 new science missions to be launched by the end of 2009.
- National Science Foundation: The research agency is seeking $6.85 billion for fiscal 2009, which represents a 13 percent rise over the current year's budget. Among the big science construction projects to be funded are the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope would receive $2.5 million for design work. Three other projects (the Alaska Region Research Vessel, the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Ocean Observatories Initiative, are not slated for construction funding "because the projects are not sufficiently mature," the agency said.
There may be some researchers or budget mavens out there who know more than I do about how this budget proposal changes the playing field for big science - and whether the spending plan has a chance of becoming reality. Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Update for 5:20 p.m. ET Feb. 5: A couple of organizations have sent along their own takes on the budget proposal:
The Planetary Society says NASA's proposed budget would be good for most areas of space science, but bad for Mars exploration. The good parts have to do with Earth-observing satellites and a "flagship" mission to the outer planets (perhaps Jupiter's icy moons, including enigmatic Europa, or perhaps one of Saturn's moons, such as smog-shrouded Titan or ice-spewing Enceladus). I would add a reference to the Joint Dark Energy Mission. The bad part is that after the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, "it is likely we will not see another NASA Mars lander for a decade," executive director Louis Friedman said.
The American Institute of Physics' Inside Science News Service focuses on the prospects for the budget proposal in an election year, in a dispatch circulated via its e-mail list. The story by Jim Dawson - headlined "Bush Budget Good for Science, but Politics Works Against It" - isn't yet posted to the ISNS Web site, so I'm republishing it here:
"WASHINGTON, D.C. - Although spending for most domestic programs stayed flat or decreased in President Bush's 2009 $3.1 trillion budget proposal released Monday, some parts of the science budget did remarkably well with increases of 20 percent or more – at least on paper. Bush proposed more than $12 billion for his American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which would lead big jumps in funding for science programs critical to the physical sciences and put them back on track to double by 2016.
"Although the science community was generally pleased by the administration's proposal, which is the third budget in a row in which Bush has tried to significantly boost funding for the physical sciences, there is concern among science policy experts and some federal research leaders, that the budget proposal will remain just that – a proposal. The ACI science funding is proposed at high levels because the administration is trying to make up for Congressional cuts to the program over the past two years, one official noted, so what appear to be big increases for science are somewhat of an illusion.
"'We're delighted with the president's request,' Raymond Orbach, head of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, said during a meeting with reporters Tuesday. 'The Office of Science funds 40 percent of physical science research in the U.S., and this is a vote of confidence from the president.'
"But when asked how confident he is that a budget proposed by a lame duck Republican president will make it through a Democratic Congress that is just coming off a testy fight with the White House over the 2008 budget, Orbach responded strongly.
"'In my view this is the third time the president has put forward a strong science budget,' he said. 'It was cut $300 million in 2007, $500 million in 2008 [in the Omnibus funding bill passed last December], and that money is gone from science forever.' The latest budget proposal calls for the Office of Science to receive $4.7 billion dollars, an increase of $750 million, or 19 percent, over the 2008 funding.
"'If this request is not honored, we're in real trouble,' Orbach said. 'I regard this as critical for science.'
"And by extension, he said, the funding is critical for the economy because the money supports science research at the national labs overseen by DOE, and that research is a critical long-term investment in U.S. economic growth.
"The two other agencies that would benefit from the proposed ACI funding are the National Science Foundation, which would receive $6.85 billion, and increase of $822 million, or 14 percent, over current funding, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which would get $634 million, a 22 percent increase.
"Michael Lubell, the head of public affairs for the American Physical Society, the leading professional organization for U.S. physicists, agreed with Orbach's assessment of the need for Congress to pass the administration's proposed science budget, but doubted it would happen. Indeed, he said, the entire 2009 budget proposal 'won't be enacted until there is a new occupant in the White House, and we have no idea what a new president will do with research and science.'
"'Bush is on the mark for science,' Lubell continued, 'but at this point it's all rhetoric because the real numbers won't be flushed out until Bush is out of office.'
"While the debate is under way, physics facilities hit with cuts to their 2008 funding will continue to scale back programs and lay off staff. The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California is laying off about 120 workers, while Fermilab outside of Chicago is facing about 200 layoffs.
"Funding for U.S. participation in ITER, the international fusion reactor project that Orbach lobbied the White House long and hard to join, was cut from $160 million to zero by the last Congress. Bush calls for more than $214 million in ITER funding for next year, but Lubell isn't sure the project can wait that long.
"Lubell and others are hoping to get $100 million for ITER, plus another $200 million for other critical Office of Science programs, in emergency funding sometime in the next month through 2008 supplemental funding package added to a defense spending bill. Part of what is being lost under the current cuts, Lubell said, are the sophisticated physics facilities at the national labs used by industry.
"'You've cut your user time for industry at these facilities by 20 percent,' he said. 'These are facilities used by pharmaceutical companies to design drugs, chip manufacturers to solve impurity problems, and other companies to develop new materials. There are facilities like these around the world, and if the companies can't use them here, they will go elsewhere. Other countries aren't waiting for U.S., they are moving ahead.'
"On that point, Orbach agreed with Lubell. 'We're still the best in the world [in science],' Orbach said, 'but that is eroding. To the extent that our key science is not funded, we will lose ground.'
"This story is provided for use by the media by the Inside Science News Service, which is supported by the American Institute of Physics, a not-for-profit publisher of scientific journals. Contact Jim Dawson, news editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org."