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R&D Funding Issues Idle in Congress

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – As the current lame duck Congress awaits the arrival of incoming members that will shift leadership in the House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans, several issues that may affect research and development spending loom in holding patterns.

Most pressing, this week Congress will consider a continuing resolution (CR) that will fund government operations at the same levels as 2010 until either an agreement is reached to pass the White House's 2011 budget or to keep the 2010 levels through the year.

CRs are used to fund government between the end of one fiscal year, in this case the 2010 year which ended in September, and the passage of an official budget for the following year.

With an incoming class of Republican members that have stressed smaller government and decreased deficits as a central goal, the current Congress may choose between passing a standard appropriations bill before the leadership switch and a CR at current levels, according to Patrick Clemins, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's R&D Budget and Policy Program.

Clemins told GenomeWeb Daily News on Tuesday that aside from the 2011 budget plans, which could mean lost R&D funding if a CR is passed in the next Congress, other issues that could affect science funding are currently in varying stages of development or are on hold during the lame duck session.

Clemins said that science funding-related issues AAAS is tracking include the Republican "Pledge to America" plan that was announced before the 2010 mid-term elections; the America Competes Act, which provides enhanced funding for several agencies funding R&D; the extension of the R&D Tax Credit; and the report from the deficit commission that was appointed by President Barack Obama.

Although the arrival of conservative leadership in the House could mean spending cuts that affect research funding, Obama said just after the mid-term election that he believes that Americans want to see "that we're making the investments in technology that will allow us to keep our competitive edge in the global economy."

The president, however, has already pursued some austerity measures in his budget plans. Earlier this year, his Office of Management and Budget ordered all non-security discretionary agencies to draft up lists of areas they could cut. OMB asked these agencies to make 5 percent budget cuts and to identify low-priority or low-performing programs making up another 5 percent of their budgets that may be also be cut.

Clemins said that all of these agencies have probably already submitted these potential cuts to OMB and that these proposed cuts were based on the projection for 2012 that budgets were going to increase by up to six or seven percent. He suggested that an agency that proposes five percent in cuts for 2012 "could still see an increase" depending on that projection.

Those cuts would not affect the 2011 budget, whether it is funded through an appropriations bill or a CR.

In its budget plan for 2011, the White House asked for an increase of $1 billion, or a 3.2 percent, to $32.9 billion for the National Institutes of Health. That budget also seeks a funding cut from $6.5 billion to $6.3 billion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increase from $4.9 billion to $5.1 billion at the Department of Energy's Office of Science, including $220 million for biofuels and biomass research, and an 8 percent increase in funds for the National Science Foundation to $7.4 billion.

Clemins said that the Pledge to America plan would seek to return discretionary funding to 2008 levels, which would amount to around $4 billion less than the 2011 budget request, or around $4.7 billion less when inflation is considered. None of these numbers are all that simple, however, Clemins said, as some funding changes were made over the last year through other spending bills and others could happen in the next year.

He said he thinks it is possible that discretionary spending could be around 2010 levels in 2011, and it may decrease by around one percent per year over the next three years based on a proposal by the deficit commission.

NIH Director Francis Collins told the Washington Post recently that if funding is cut to 2008 levels then it could lower the chances of scientists winning a research grant to around 10 percent, while around one in five proposals are successful now.

Clemins also said that the America Competes Act, which passed in the House earlier this year and had looked as if it was going to be passed at the end of this session in the Senate, now may not get that vote until February. Clemins said that the bill is "sitting in limbo right now."

The act is focused on supporting science and technology by increasing research investment, enhancing education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and developing federal programs to study barriers to innovation.

The House version of the bill includes a funding boost for the National Science Foundation that would provide $8.2 billion to the agency in 2011 and increase its budget over the next five years until it totals $10.7 billion in 2015.

Clemins told GWDN that the R&D Tax Credit, which is up for re-authorization and which the White House wants to expand, has gotten lost during the election but will be revived and most likely passed at some point. These credits have been extended 13 times since they began in 1981.

President Obama said in a speech this year that he would like to make the tax credit permanent, and expand it by around 20 percent.

Clemins said that he has not heard about "a big push" in Congress to expand the credit as the White House's wishes, but it may be considered as part of a more comprehensive tax plan and bunched in with other measures.

"What is probably going to happen this year — like every two years for the last 10 years — is that [the credit] is going to be extended for a period of time and then they're going to look at it again about the time that it comes back up again," Clemins said.

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