Leaving science out in the cold?

During Wednesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama will propose that discretionary, non-security spending be frozen at current levels for the next three years, several news agencies report.  While exempting specific agencies, the president’s plan could lead to difficult times for federal science agency budgets.

Under the proposal, entitlement programs, like Social Security, and defense and homeland security programs would be exempt from the freeze.  However, research and science budgets at the NIH and the NSF would subject to the plan.

Science funding represents a significant portion of discretionary spending.  For example, the NIH’s $31 billion budget alone represents 7 percent of the $447 billion targeted by the president’s proposal.

While some discretionary programs could see larger budgets under the plan, any increases would need to be offset by equally large cuts elsewhere.  For example, if the NIH were to receive a $5 billion budget increase in 2011, the president’s plan would require $5 billion in cuts from other agencies.

The proposal comes at a dangerous time for science.  Specifically, the NIH’s $10 billion in stimulus funds expire at the end of 2010.  Without a large increase in the NIH’s budget, the renewed research capacity created by the stimulus will be lost.

Of course, Congress has a large influence on the federal budget process.  U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees hold significant power and ultimately decide the funding that each federal agency will receive each year.  And, Congress often approves NIH budgets larger than the president’s requests.

More generally, Democrats in Congress may find this proposal hard to support during an election year when they are seeking to create jobs and drive down unemployment.

In short, don’t be surprised if the science agency budget requests from the president are modest.  Robust science funding will need to rely on the support of members of Congress.

More information about the president’s proposal is available on Politico and CNN.

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