Federal R&D is stagnating, panel says

Federal R&D is stagnating, panel says

Despite large gains in defense and biomedical research and development, federal R&D spending has stagnated in many agencies, panelists said yesterday at the Defense Research and Engineering Exposition in Washington.

For the proposed fiscal 2004 budget now being finalized by Congress, federally funded R&D spending will come to be about $126 billion, according to Kei Koizumi, R&D budget analyst for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a professional organization for scientists. The total R&D budget for 2003 totaled $117.3 billion, according to AAAS.

If passed, $126 billion would be the largest amount the government has ever dedicated to R&D in one year, Koizumi said.

But this figure masks an uneven distribution of funds. More than 95 percent of the increase in R&D spending will go to three agencies: the Defense and Homeland Security departments and National Institutes of Health.

'Collectively, all the other agencies' R&D funding will remain flat,' Koizumi said. For instance, the R&D budget for the Energy Department has remained at about $3 billion since 1990, according to Koizumi.

Moreover, this stagnation is part of a long-term trend.

'Major federal sponsors of physical sciences and engineering research have seen flat budgets for the past decade,' Koizumi said, referring to agencies such as NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

This year's increases in funding for the Defense Department, DHS and NIH may be directed more toward specific projects rather than basic research that advances the scientific body of knowledge as a whole, he said.

'The big increases in DHS and Defense are largely in development, which is narrowly focused on solving technological problems,' Koizumi said.

The jump in NIH's funding is the result of a five-year campaign Congress initiated last year to double that agency's budget, mainly so it can capitalize on recent breakthroughs in molecular biology.

Stagnant R&D spending might hinder agencies' ability to help the United States compete globally, according to the panelists.

'Our national objectives essentially require advanced technology,' said William Martin of Energy's Advisory Board task force on the Future of Science Programs. U.S. development in supercomputers, for instance, has suffered from flat spending.

'Why have the Japanese surpassed us in computational abilities?' Martin said, referring to Japan's Earth Simulator Center, now ranked as the most powerful supercomputer in operation (see story). 'How could we lose our leadership in this department?'

Federal investment in computer science has jumped 64.5 percent from 1993 to 1999, according to Stephen Merrill, executive director of science, technology and economy policy for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, an engineering professional group. But investment in other fields of science that support IT, such as chemistry, mathematics and physics, has stagnated or even declined.

Federally funded R&D can benefit agencies both directly and indirectly: Agencies can use software and technologies that have been developed to specifically meet their needs; also, research that is picked up by the commercial sector can benefit agencies that later purchase products based on that research.

Martin said the difficulty agencies have in increasing R&D budgets stems in part from not having undersecretaries in science who can explain to agency heads the value in investment.

Martin also said that the Office of Management and Budget, by requiring agencies to provide business rationales for budgetary items, makes it more difficult to justify R&D spending on long-term projects.

OMB's process 'devalues the future,' Martin said. 'They use a high interest rate when doing a cost-benefit analysis. So when you go up to be scored you get killed.'

During another panel at the conference, Thomas Killion, acting Army Science and Technology Executive, emphasized the necessity of R&D, even with the abundance of commercial products available.

When talking about mobile tactical networks, Killion said the Army is faced with a number of problems unique to military operations. 'We have to worry about things that the commercial world doesn't,' he said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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