The Federal Budget and You—Why Scientists Should Care about R&D Spending

By Erica Goldman

Aug 20, 2012

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Last month hundreds of Canadian scientists took to the streets to protest, among other things, cuts to federal funding for environmental research and the forced closure of several research stations. Their chant: “No science. No evidence. No truth. No democracy.”  Faced with the imminent loss of jobs and research funding across several key environmental programs, Canadian scientists are reacting vigorously to the indisputable link between the federal science budget and their academic livelihoods.

But in the absence of a critical funding crisis, scientists writ large often seem unaware of the critical role that the federal science budget plays in their daily lives. Here in the U.S., when scientists develop their research queries into proposals to the relevant federal agencies, most don’t stop to think about why that agency has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in that subject area or how that money came to be there. Many scientists don’t understand – much less engage in – the complex machinations of the Congressional appropriations process.

Admittedly, the nitty-gritty of the budget process can seem both obscure and boring, I am guilty of these sentiments myself.  When I was a Graduate Research Fellow for the National Science Foundation (NSF) studying at the University of Washington, I felt no real connection between my monthly stipend and NSF’s annual budget, though the link was clear as day.  Nor did I feel that, as a recipient of this federal funding, I was compelled to connect my research back to the policy process that originated the funds in the first place.  It wasn’t until my first month as a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, working in the House Committee on Resources, that I started to get it.

My fellowship started on February 1, 2003, days before then President George W. Bush submitted his 2004 budget request to Congress. Within the week, I had attended budget briefings given by the heads of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which explained the Administration’s priorities for those agencies in the coming fiscal year.  Within the month, I had helped prep the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans (within the House Committee on Resources) for upcoming budget hearings – when Members of Congress have the opportunity to grill the agency heads testifying on behalf of the President’s budget request.  I had squinted at tables of numbers that compared funding levels across different years, trying to make heads or tails of what a delta of $5M up or down would actually mean for the life of a particular program within one line office of an agency.

My dunk into the deep end of the federal budget process was mind scrambling and complex. But it was anything but boring.  For the first time, I felt what was really at stake. Each line item in the budget translates to a specific program – which means jobs, ship time for research vessels, operations support, and extramural grants for research. Scientists may think that the world “inside the Beltway” is totally distant and irrelevant. But it’s not.

All of the time I spent wearing uncomfortable, out-of-character power suits on Capitol Hill led me to this: All scientists should at least have some appreciation for what goes on behind-the-scenes of the email blast that comes announcing the latest RFP—some sense for where that money is originating. None of this is to say that all scientists should become advocates for federal research funding. Far from it.  But if we are at least aware of the basic flow of the process all along, it won’t take a crisis like what’s happening in Canada to make us realize that the federal R&D budget matters in our daily lives.

Figuring out where to get started understanding the federal budget process as it applies to scientists can seem overwhelming.  Here are a few resources that offer primers and ongoing guidance:

• Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process
• AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program
Seeking out an opportunity to actually spend time in the trenches can be truly invaluable.  There’s nothing like seeing the policy process up close and personal to drive home why the federal budget matters. Here are a few opportunities for scientists to spend time in the D.C. policy world:
• AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships
• Knauss Fellowship
• Presidential Management Fellows Program
• National Academies – Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program
• American Chemical Society (Note: Many professional societies offer fellowships, so talking to the policy office for your scientific society is a good place to start.)

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