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AAAS Reviews 'Unusual' Funding Year for R&D

WASHINGTON, DC (GenomeWeb News) – Sandwiched between President Barack Obama's speech on Monday at the National Academies of Science, in which he called for an "historic investment" in basic science, and the expected arrival of the White House's budget proposal for 2010, the American Association for the Advancement of Science met Thursday to discuss the past year's funding surprises and the climate of R&D spending in an uncertain economy.

"It has been a very unusual year," Al Teich, director of AAAS' Science and Policy Programs, said in his analysis of research and development funding in the 2009 and 2010 federal appropriations and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which knocked science support into a higher plane compared with previous years.

In effect, Teich explained to the crowd at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy that the stimulus bill was "a huge supplement to the budget that passed before even most of the original budget." And it offered "unprecedented increases for most agencies," with NIH gaining a 36 percent leap in support over its 2009 appropriation, he noted.

Teich said that the stimulus funding for R&D also was notable because the conference committee between the House of Representatives and the Senate tasked with carving out the final numbers chose the highest R&D funding levels between the two versions. As a result NIH reaped $10.4 billion, nearly tripling the $3.9 billion originally sought by the House.

Among the ARRA R&D priorities is funding of biomedical research, innovation and competitiveness-related basic research; energy science; and climate change research, Teich explained.

The bill put NIH, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on track to double over seven to 10 years, which was a promise of the Obama campaign.

The catch is that while the agencies received the money in 2009 and they can spend it through Sept. 2010, the goal of the act is to spend the money as quickly as possible.

For the 2009 budget, Teich said, the Democrats in Congress simply "waited out" President George W. Bush's term, not knowing for some of that time which candidate would replace him, and ran the government and funded appropriations under the same levels as 2008 through a continuing resolution in the interim.

For those who awaited the new president because they sought increases in research funding, the plan paid off. In the 2009 budget, Teich noted, "even without ARRA every major R&D agency receives an increase above inflation."

According to AAAS analysis, when the 2009 budget and the stimulus are lumped together, total R&D for the year came to $172 billion. That includes a total of $41.9 billion for NIH; $7.5 billion for the National Science Foundation; $16.3 billion for DOE; $2.6 billion for the US Department of Agriculture; and increases for both NASA and the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Defense ate up the other half, receiving $82.7 billion in the year.

Teich expects all of this funding to have several impacts on research. Grant proposal success rates at NIH and at NSF "will improve dramatically," he predicted. He also noted that the stimulus funding "provides unprecedented support for academic facilities and instrumentation and federal labs."

The bill specifies with a "broad brush" how the spending will be handled, but Teich said that it leaves agencies free to differ on how they think it should be implemented.

NIH will try to "spend as much as possible this fiscal year," he guessed, noting that $7.4 billion of its stimulus boost will go to fund grants through the common fund.

On top of that, the institutes gained $800 million for the Office of the Director, which could be used to fund special projects and high-risk research. NIH buildings and facilities may be upgraded or expanded using $500 million, and $1 billion will be spent on extramural construction, repairs, and alterations at research labs around the country. Another $300 million will go to shared instrumentation purchases and other capital equipment.

NIH has chosen several ways to push this money out the door. One way is to choose the best, recently reviewed but unfunded R01 grants that are "capable of making significant advances in two years," and it will support new R01s that are capable of generating results in two years.

The institutes will accelerate ongoing science through targeted supplements to current grants, and it will fund new types off research that fits into ARRA's priorities through the NIH Challenge Grants program, including supporting science behind malaria and tuberculosis drugs, influenza and other vaccines, and therapeutics for emerging and resistant infections.

Some of the money also will go to fuel its Grant Opportunities grants, and "new faculty" grants, he said.

The NSF will spend $2 billion to support "highly rated" research proposals which could not otherwise be funded because of budget restraints; $200 million will go to major research and facilities construction; $300 million will fund major research infrastructure, $200 million will support academic research infrastructure; $100 million is marked for education; $60 million for the Noyce Scholarships; and $15 million will support a new professional science master's program. All of these are standard grants with durations of up to five years.

Any analysis of the R&D budget scenario over the coming two years will be incomplete, however, until the president presents his detailed budget for 2010, which Teich said is expected soon, now that the House and Senate have both passed their budget resolutions.

John Holdren, who is director of Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the AAAS earlier in the day that the president wants to begin to push the federal R&D spending level toward 3 percent of gross domestic product, and it is expected that next year's spending will be a step toward that goal.

It is rare for Congress to finalize its budget resolutions before receiving a detailed budget, Teich said, but he reiterated that this is an unusual year.

"There are questions about how effectively the R&D stimulus funding will be spent," Teich said, noting that it is a challenge for agencies like NIH to spend the funds on research projects in particular in such a short time period. And there is the question of what the long-term outlook is for sustained growth for R&D funding.

While the increases to the 2009 budget may reflect Obama's campaign promises to fund biomedical, energy, and other research, the $787 billion stimulus arrived like an unexpected windfall for those seeking federal research dollars, and they owe it entirely to the extraordinary changes in the global economy, Stanley Collender, the managing director of Qorvis Communications and a fiscal policy writer for Roll Call, told the AAAS meeting.

Collender hinted that not only may the stimulus be a one-shot deal, but he predicted that the same economic circumstances that brought the windfall could cause a budget crunch in the near future that will force some difficult fiscal choices to be made.

Obama "absolutely has the permission" to spend money this year, and even to drive the deficit up to around $1.6 trillion, Collender said, citing his estimate of the coming shortfall. But next year will probably look very different, because Obama then will have "the permission, if not the direction, to start to reduce [the deficit] as soon as the economy gets better," he added.

"In fact the president's plan is that once the economy starts up," Collender said, estimating that may be around 2011, then "there will be some fairly ambitious deficit-reduction efforts on the table."

When that happens, some tough choices will be made, he said, and that will impact the research community. "One of the problems this community has," he told the AAAS audience, "is that you have allowed yourselves somehow to become the poster child for pork-barrel spending … and that has to stop. Somehow the truth about research has to get out to the world."

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