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Finding the Science Signal in the Budget Noise

By Chad English and COMPASS

Jan 22, 2013


Minute Read


Most of us have had our fill of the “fiscal cliff,” are glad that we’re (technically) past it, but dread the next round of this fiercely political debate. In the midst of this—in two weeks time—the President is supposed to present his proposed budget to Congress and the next federal budget cycle will start. That’s been delayed, but not likely by more than a few weeks. Most people who don’t live inside the Beltway are blissfully ignorant of this incredibly complex and sometimes convoluted process, although it can have real bearing on their lives. In addition to the obvious implications for science funding, scientific conferences are reportedly feeling the direct effects of federal budget limits. After eight years inside the Beltway, I still learn something new about the federal budget every year.

Many people, including my colleague Erica Goldman, have made the case for why scientists should care about such a significant source of science funding. If you’re planning to talk to a federal legislator or their staff, you’ll find that even a passing knowledge of the budget cycle is useful for the simple reason that this cycle sets the annual rhythm of Congress’ activity. However, it’s not a simple process, and to anyone who hasn’t been immersed in it there may not be an obvious place to get a read on what the opening bell means; for example, is a $2.6 trillion budget good or bad for scientists?

But, the budget is complicated for a reason—it’s approximately 50 million times as large as a typical household budget! Imagine trying to allocate all of your household income for the year at once, instead of month-to-month (or week-to-week) as most of us do. Then, imagine multiplying that by 50 million. And then imagine that you and 500 of your neighbors, and your mayor have to agree to the budget together.  It’s too big a challenge for any one person to understand, let alone make informed decisions about. So it gets broken up into many, many pieces to be parsed and adjusted, then stitched back together. At each stage there is wrangling and votes (many, many votes). In theory, at the end of an 8-9 month process, it’s all settled, the spending is set, and the agencies get the money they need to do their work. Putting aside all the many bizarre twists and turns this process can take—if you’re on the outside it can seem a hopeless task to find the signal in all of the budget cycle noise.

I asked Kei Koizumi if there is one signal he looks for to get a sense of where federal science funding is going, especially when the opening bell sounds (i.e., the President’s budget proposal introduced in February).  Kei is Assistant Director for Federal Research and Development at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and has spent his career understanding (and being involved in) the federal budget and spending related to science. He pointed out that federal research and development (R&D) spending almost always shakes out to about 1/7th of total discretionary spending.

For last year, you can see the numbers by diving into the President’s budget, digging out Table S-11 (Funding Levels for Appropriated (“Discretionary”) Programs by Category) from the Summary Tables, and noting that for 2014 (the next fiscal year), “Total base discretionary spending” is projected to be up a tick: $1.062 trillion, up from $1.043 trillion. This looks like a sign that there will be more money going to R&D, but remember that this is a projection made a year ago, during the last cycle. In the coming weeks, we’ll get to see if that’s changed.

So, if you’re not too intimidated to try, how do you go deeper? Where do you look to find out what the various machinations of the budget cycle mean for science? AAAS provides an incredibly valuable resource, tracking and trying to make sense of the whole budget cycle for the entire R&D community. AAAS covers all federal R&D funding, including defense, so to get a sense of what it means to your discipline, look to your own professional society. An increasing number of societies have professional staff who keep track of budget and appropriations implications for their membership. If you’ve never bothered checking their website or signing up for their policy newsletters, consider doing so.


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