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Balanced Budget Could Threaten Research

Balanced Budget Could Threaten Research

SEATTLE--"In every area of government, the most important legacy of the last Congress was the agreement to balance the budget by the year 2002," David Goldston said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Achieving a balanced budget has "become an article of faith" on Capitol Hill, and this will inevitably result in "very tight funding for science," said Mr. Goldston, aide to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), the second ranking member on the House Science Committee.

Another speaker, J. Paul Gilman, PhD, executive director of the National Research Council's Commission on Life Sciences, said that the last Congress, the 104th, proved more generous to research in its second year than in its first.

For fiscal year 1996, the Congress appropriated $71.1 billion in R&D funding, an increase of 0.4%, but upped that figure for fiscal year 1997 by 4% to $74 billion. However, Dr. Gilman noted, the Congress raised basic research funds only 2.7% in fiscal 1997, compared to a 4.8% increase in fiscal 1996. The "hallmark" of the 104th Congress' largess for science was in the biomedical field, he added.

Mr. Goldston agreed that "science has done very well in the last few budgets." However, his assessment of the 105th Congress cast doubt on whether this funding level can be maintained, given the commitment to a balanced budget.

Scientists, he warned, need to recognize the new climate on Capitol Hill and find ways to work within the evolving environment to ensure that science will continue to receive strong consideration in the budget process. Even this will not prevent reductions in funding, "but there is a difference between being cut and being slaughtered," he said.

Three Reasons to Worry

Three key factors make the continuation of strong science funding more problematic than many in the research community appear to accept, Mr. Goldston said.

First, science funding has prospered because a few powerful members of Congress have given it their strong support. As it becomes increasingly difficult to meet all the demands and still balance the budget, this support probably won't be sufficient to prevent significant cuts.

Second, while science enjoys broad support among members of Congress, this supports does not run deep. It could ebb easily as members battle over where to cut funds.

Third, only now is Congress beginning to understand how difficult balancing the budget will be. "The cuts are going to get tougher," he said.

Mr. Goldston also described three misconceptions that may handicap scientists in dealing with funding issues.

Insular thinking. Researchers tend to view budget cuts in the sciences as directed specifically at science, rather than as the result of trade-offs in accommodating the needs of competing priorities with the funds available. "Such decisions are about the budget, not about science."

The "Vannevar Bush Syndrome" or "If we only had another grand report." The Bush report, crafted by the director of the Office of Research and Development at the end of World War II, recommended the creation of a single civilian-oriented national science agency that would be insulated from politics. Mr. Goldston pointed out that most of the things envisioned in the report never came to fruition. "Science grew because of factors in the social and economic climate, not because of anything to do with science per se," he contended.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill. Individual scientists can make a difference in maintaining a proscience environment in Congress, but trooping to Capitol Hill to lobby members isn't the most effective way. Rather, he suggested, scientists should try to reach members of Congress when they are at home meeting with voters.

 
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