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Bush Delays, Proposed 2002 Budget Could Put Science in the Balance

WASHINGTON, March 26 – Critics from within the sciences have charged President George W. Bush with failing to fill key science positions in a timely manner and proposing a budget that does not go far enough to support basic research. 

“I think we’ll find that when the president submits his detailed budget, science it is not going to be doing well. It's not driven by an anti-science bias, or a lack of understanding of science, but the simple mathematics of the tax cut,” said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The proposed 2002 budget, which has provided for a relatively generous 14 percent increase for the National Institutes of Health, actually calls for a cut in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) budget by 2 percent in real terms, while the Department of Energy’s non-defense R&D spending could be cut by up to seven percent. 

In addition, Bush has also failed to name a director or any associate directors at the Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP), a move experts say leaves basic science without effective champions within the GOP-controlled budget process. And, while Bush has named former transition team member Richard Russell as OSTP’s chief of staff, he is not seen as a friend of science.

Koizumi said that Russell, a former congressional staffer and an opponent of the Department of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program (ATP), was assigned to review the department's science programs during the transition. The ATP, which was instrumental in the development of such technologies as the DNA chip, was zeroed out in Bush's 2002 proposed budget plan. 

There are also indications that Bush has tried to push the current NSF director out of her position in order to bring one of his own in to head the agency. The seven-year terms for the NSF director currently run over successive presidential administrations in order to help ensure that the key science post will remain nonpartisan, although the director does serve “at the pleasure of the president.” Shortly after the election was decided, Bush advisor Admiral James Watkins sent the National Science Board a request for recommendations for Rita Colwell’s replacement.

This was “a highly unusual move,” Koizumi said, since Colwell, who is in the middle of her seven-year term, had not tendered her resignation. A letter-writing campaign on Colwell’s behalf was headed off when Watkins’ request was withdrawn, and Colwell said she had no plans to resign. However, with no clear direction yet given from the president, Koizumi said, “we're holding on to the letter.” 

The White House was unavailable for comment.

Several other prominent people in the sciences have also recently voiced their concerns about Bush’s seemingly anti-science bias. In the current issue of Science , editor Donald Kennedy wrote that Bush has proposed a budget that favors the National Institutes of Health but ignores the important roles the other agencies play in advancing science. 

“The dramatic scientific gains that will flow from the sequencing of the human genome will be harvested not only by molecular biologists but also by specialists in bioinformatics, trained in such disciplines as mathematics and computer science,” Kennedy wrote. “Nurturing fields such as these requires a balanced portfolio…It is hardly surprising that the balance is lacking here, because the offices that could supply such oversight are dark. It is well past time for this administration to turn the lights on.”

Harold Varmus, former NIH director, and Allen Bromley, science advisor during the first Bush Administration, have also recently come out in support of increased funding for basic research. "The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating policy," Bromley wrote in a March 9 op-ed for The New York Times

At a March 6 hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), an early proponent of the Human Genome Project, spoke in support of the Department of Energy, a key player in the genomics effort.

“You can't cut the DOE's research programs and think that the NIH is going to succeed in curing all our ills,” Domenici said. 

But House Republicans have so far shown their support for the president’s spending package for the basic sciences. Last week they crushed scientist-Congressman Rush Holt’s (D-NJ) proposal to add $1 billion to the science line in the budget resolution, a category that includes research programs at the NSF, DOE, and NASA.

Meanwhile, a "Dear Colleague" letter advocating a 15 percent boost for the NSF, with 95 signatories at last count, is circulating in the House of Representatives. A similar letter in the Senate last year bore the signatures of more than 40 of the 100 Senators. Circulating such a letter is a frequently used means of publicizing an effort to prompt support from constituents of reluctant representatives. 

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