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White House's budget for science gets down to earth

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President Barack Obama chats with members of Team America Rocketry Challenge, including Gwynelle Condino and Janet Nieto from Presidio, Texas, during last week's White House Science Fair. Obama's budget proposal emphasizes the economic benefits of scientific research.

Science policy experts are happy with the broad outlines of the White House's budget plan, but some projects on the scientific frontiers are looking as if they're in big trouble.

The plan for NASA spending in fiscal 2013 serves as an example: Today's $17.7 billion request is just slightly less than what the space agency is getting this year. Some programs, such as the commercial spaceship development program, would get far more than they're getting now. But the high-profile Mars program would basically be put on hold after next year's scheduled launch of the MAVEN orbiter. Other hoped-for missions to Jupiter's moons or the planet Uranus are off the table.

"With these cuts to NASA science, humankind loses," the Planetary Society's CEO, Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") said in a pugnacious blog posting. "There's going to be a fight."

A similar scenario is playing out in high-energy physics: The Department of Energy's Office of Science budget is in for a 2.4 percent increase, rising to $4.992 billion. Research into biofuels and clean-energy technologies would get a significant boost. But funding for domestic fusion research and high-energy experimental facilities such as the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider — which reported the first signs of quark-gluon plasma, also known as "big bang soup" — would be hit with heavy cutbacks.

The cutbacks could mark the beginning of a "death spiral," Steven Vigdor, associate director for nuclear and particle physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory, told ScienceInsider's Adrian Cho.

There are three big things to keep in mind about today's budget proposal:

  • First, Obama's overall $3.8 trillion budget plan is being forged amid circumstances that call for economic austerity. The White House is particularly keen to shine a spotlight on down-to-earth programs that will yield economic benefits, such as energy initiatives. "I think what the president did is look to his economic advisers and recognize that 50 percent of the economic growth since the end of the Second World War is due to advances in science and innovation," Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told me. "If we eliminate that scientific base, future innovation will not occur in this country, and economic growth is going to be stunted."
  • Second, it's just a proposal. For good or for ill, the fate of the budget depends on what Congress passes, not what the president proposes. It's not clear that anything will be decided before the November elections. The most likely scenario is that R&D, like other budget categories, will be funded through a continuing resolution until the dust settles, as was the case in 2008 and 2010. A couple of House members already have vowed to fight NASA's plan to hold up Mars missions, and there are no doubt other areas where the budget proposal will be contested.
  • Third, spending on research and development enjoys more bipartisan support than most other types of spending. Lubell noted that President Barack Obama was "sticking to a trajectory that was originally established by President George W. Bush." That trajectory calls for continued increases in federal R&D. For fiscal 2013, the White House would raise total R&D spending to $140.8 billion, an increase of 1.4 percent or $1.95 billion.

Lubell acknowledged that the Republicans will be prone to claim that today's 246-page budget request is dead on arrival. "That may be true for the overall budget, but perhaps when they get into the details, they can find a few places where they can agree," he said.

The big picture on research and development is "absolutely encouraging for the federal research enterprise and for supporters of scientific innovation," said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He took particular note of the 4.8 percent rise in proposed spending by the National Science Foundation, to $7.4 billion for 2013.

The White House said the budget would expand "NSF's efforts in clean-energy research, advanced manufacturing, wireless communications and other emerging technologies." Advanced manufacturing and wireless-network innovation also figured prominently in the request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which would see its budget rise to $857 million.

The Environmental Protection Agency would receive more R&D money to study hot topics such as climate change and shale-rock hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. "fracking"). But Hourihan said "the news isn't so good" for the National Institutes of Health, where the budget would remain virtually flat at $30 billion.

In percentage terms, the news is even worse for the Defense Department, which would see its R&D spending fall 2.1 percent to $71.2 billion. The Agriculture Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also due to get less for R&D than they're getting for the current fiscal year.

For a full critique of R&D spending, agency by agency, check out the budget-related postings at the ScienceInsider blog. Then let me know what you think of the prospects for federally funded research and development by leaving a comment below.

More about the budget:

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