- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

With Democrats and Republicans still far apart on how to deal with the nation’s debt and fiscal woes, a cloud of uncertainty has settled over the nation’s scientific and technology research sectors over the size of their own budgets in the years to come.

While funding cuts would hurt, analysts think the lack of clarity poses its own danger.

“When you have contentious budget [debates] … it really affects how you plan for the future,” said Patrick Clemins, director of the research-and-development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mary Woolley, president and CEO of the nonprofit medical and health research advocacy group Research America, said scientists and innovators need “some kind of assurance that the nation is behind them,” and such assurances can be hard to find when billions of dollars in cuts are on the table.

“If they don’t feel [they’re getting that assurance], they’ll go somewhere else, and there are plenty of places for them to go,” she said Monday.

Laying out his plan to curb spending and reduce the national debt, President Obama last week again stressed that the United States must continue to lead the way on innovation. His initial fiscal year 2012 spending proposal, for example, proposed a 13 percent increase in funding to the National Science Foundation, boosting its budget to $7.8 billion.

The GOP’s 2012 plan, put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, proposes reductions in science, space and technology, capping federal spending in those areas at $27 billion in 2012 and keeping it there annually through 2017. It is unclear which programs would be affected if the plan were enacted. A spokesman for the committee said Monday those details would be hashed out later, if the plan becomes law.

But neither side will get all it wants. Mr. Obama’s desire to boost funding to research and development is likely dead on arrival in the Republican-led House.

The White House, however, maintains the nation can’t sacrifice investments in science and technology, boiling the fight down to what Mr. Clemins called “an ideological argument” over “the role of government in science.”

As that argument continues, Ms. Woolley said, more people are becoming convinced the United States is “losing ground” to other countries, such as China.

“That clearly has an effect on young scientists and entrepreneurs,” she said. “At this juncture, it’s especially challenging to keep our country competitive in a world that has learned from us.”

Despite the ongoing debate, Ms. Woolley said, she doesn’t see science and technology funding on the “front lines” of the budget battle, simply because cutting a few billion dollars won’t be nearly as effective as implementing entitlement reform and other measures.

The 2011 spending deal took the first shots at funding for scientific research. The National Science Foundation, for example, saw a cut of about $53 million from 2010 levels. The cut eliminates NSF backing for about 1,500 scientific researchers and means 134 fewer grants can be awarded, according to Maria Zacharias, NSF’s acting group leader for media and public information.