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Mixed reaction to Obama’s science budget proposals

President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2013 would increase federal non-defence R&D by 5 per cent to nearly $65 billion, and keep three key science agencies on a budget-doubling trajectory.

However, some observers are warning that other key research agencies would be hit.

Obama’s proposal, released on 13 February, would increase funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 4.8 per cent to $7.4bn; the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science by about 2.5 per cent to $5bn; and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research laboratories by 14 per cent to $708 million.

In addition, the budget request would increase the Department of Homeland Security’s S&T funding by more than 26 per cent to $729m.

Despite this significant boost for the research community amid a difficult funding environment, reaction to the proposal was mixed. One concern is the fact that funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be frozen at $30.7bn.

While many research advocates appreciated the president’s overall support for science and technology, they argued that a frozen NIH budget would stall medical breakthroughs in coming years.

Research!America’s chairman, John Porter—a former Republican Congressman who once chaired the House Appropriations Committee that funded NIH and other science agencies—said in a statement that the administration’s NIH recommendation “fails to capitalise” on the power of the agency’s funding to drive new businesses, jobs and treatments.

“We simply cannot freeze investments in biomedical research,” he warned. “The consequences would be disastrous as global competition intensifies.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges’ president, Darrell Kirch, also cautioned that the administration’s proposal to freeze NIH’s funding would jeopardise “the long-term health of the nation in favor of short-term deficit reduction proposals”.

The president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Joseph LaManna, agreed that the NIH budget request was “substantially below that necessary to sustain the current research effort”.

He said it would force the agency to “sacrifice valuable lines of research in order to keep up with rising costs and new mandates”.

However, Obama’s budget proposes that NIH implement “new grants management policies” to increase the number of new research grants it awards by directing resources away from “lower-priority activities”.

Other science agencies would actually see cuts under the president’s proposal.

The Department of Agriculture would see its R&D funding fall 1.5 per cent to $2.3bn, Defense R&D would decrease by more than 2 per cent to $71.2bn, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would see its R&D decline by 3.8 per cent to $552m, the White House said.

NASA’s budget would be held flat but its planetary science funding would be slashed by 20 per cent down to $1.2bn, which some say would likely force the agency to abandon key international partnerships.

“Fallout from the threatened budget cuts is forcing NASA to back out of international agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) to partner in the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, planned to launch in 2016, and threatens the ExoMars rover, set to launch in 2018,” the Planetary Society warned in a 13 February release.

“Without NASA to provide launches and critical equipment, Europe has turned to Russia to keep the missions alive by becoming its partner in the missions,” the group added.

The president’s budget request is just the first step in the appropriations process for FY2013, since both chambers of Congress must develop their own proposals and then reconcile them before sending a final measure to Obama for his action. But the research community is emphasising that a lot is at stake.

Mark Wrighton, the Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, suggested in a 13 February statement that some areas of the president’s budget, like the NIH, would “require increased funding to ensure continued US leadership”.

Data recently released by the National Science Board indicate that R&D expenditures in China and nine other Asian countries has risen to match that of the US, and that while the US continues to maintain a position of leadership, “it has experienced a gradual erosion of its position in many specific areas”.

The non-profit Science Coalition, made up of leading public and private research universities, estimated that this shift has meant the loss of more than one-quarter of the hi-tech manufacturing jobs in the US over the last decade as US-based multinationals have opted to place more of their R&D operations overseas.