Rewriting the Rules for Federal Support of Science

William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science
Over the past few years, dramatic changes have been taking place in the federal research funding picture. Although you're undoubtedly aware of some of the symptoms, such as impossible pay lines and reduced indirect cost allowances, you may not be as familiar with the underlying shifts in policy--changes that will affect us for years to come. Basically, policymakers and science leaders are rewriting the book on why and how government supports science. I've been bringing you this story in installments as each new chapter unfolds.

To recap the main theme, national security has been replaced by advancing national priorities as the principal justification for investing in science. And this has resulted in unprecedented planning developments at the highest national policy levels, including the creation of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the 1994 document, 'In the National Interest,' which articulates the President's strategic objectives for science.

Well, we now have another chapter: 'Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology' (see page 2). This is a report from a committee assembled under the joint auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, at the request of the U.S. Senate. Chaired by the Carnegie Institution's Frank Press, PhD (former Presidential Science Advisor and President of the National Academy of Sciences), this 18-member group was broadly representative of academic, industrial, and foundation constituencies, with our own Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, representing the social and behavioral sciences.

Its charge--considering how the government ought to allocate the taxpayers' research dollars--was cast within the strategic framework of 'In the National Interest.' In essence, its purpose was to translate a set of broad objectives, such as 'maintain leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge' and 'enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals,' into recommendations for action.

This latest chapter is amazing in its explicitness and boldness. Rarely do such committees take on controversial issues such as the relative value of small versus big science or academic versus nonacademic research, but this one makes no bones about favoring the 'support of people and projects over institutions,...major programs, or centers' (that is, small over big science), and 'academic over nonacademic' research. Rarely will such groups risk the ire of colleagues by suggesting that government should exercise any top-down control over the funding priorities accorded specific fields and missions. But these folks do so without flinching and spell out exactly how this should be implemented.

And rather than making the standard pitch for resumed growth in the federal science budget (lest we degenerate into a third-world nation), the committee accepts the reality of level funding for the foreseeable future and suggests that by making wise choices we can do just fine.

Predictably, not everyone is thrilled by this report. Big-science and national laboratory types (chiefly physical and biological scientists) who see it goring their prized oxen are already screaming, and a lot of universities and centers that have become used to relatively unquestioned support will undoubtedly voice similar complaints. One important place where it has received a warm reception, however, is the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). And it would be hard to imagine a budget-conscious Congress that ordered the study rejecting its basic 'we need tough choices rather than just more money' message.

Despite its more contentious aspects, however, the report offers some advice that most scientists will applaud. For one thing, it strongly endorses peer review and open competition for research funds and strongly opposes government micromanagement and the cumbersome, politically charged process by which the science and technology budget is now cobbled together.

Regarding this latter process, it recommends an entirely new approach _one in which the federal science and technology (FS&T) budget would be viewed and assembled as an integrated whole rather than the end result of a piecemeal, agency-by-agency authorization and appropriation process. And it argues for redefining the FS&T budget in terms of the actual basic and applied research investment rather than the current practice of including advanced development expenditures in a total 'R&D' figure. The FS&T portion of the present $70 billion R&D investment is about $35-$40 billion.

I would be very surprised if all the recommendations in this report were adopted. I would be even more surprised if it wound up like so many such documents do--on a shelf gathering dust. It's not the final chapter of the story by any means, but it sure manages to hold your attention!

APA Home Page . Search . Site Map