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Does Science Policy Matter?


It is not only axiomatic but also true that federal science policy is largely played out as federal science budget policy. Science advocacy organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academies, and various disciplinary professional societies carefully monitor the budget process and publish periodic assessments, while issue-focused interest groups such as disease lobbies and environmental organizations focus on agencies and programs of specific relevance to their constituencies. Overall, it is fair to say that marginal budgetary changes are treated by the science and technology (S&T) community as surrogates for the well-being of the science enterprise, while the interested public considers such changes to be surrogates for progress toward particular societal goals (for example, budget increases for cancer research mean more rapid progress toward cures). In this dominant science policy worldview, yearly budget increases mean that science is doing well, and doing good. When budgets are flat or declining—or even when rates of budget increases are slowing—then science must suffer and so, by extension, must the prospects for humanity.

In recent years, this worldview was perhaps most starkly on display in discussions about the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 as a result of a highly effective lobbying effort, a sympathetic Congress, and a brief period of overall budgetary surplus. During this period, the NIH budget went from $13.6 billion to $27.0 billion, and the NIH share of all civilian federally funded research rose from its already dominant 37% to 48%. Nevertheless, when the fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget debates began, NIH and its advocates in the research community portrayed the situation as one of crisis arising from a sudden decline in the rate of budget increase. Said a representative of the Association of American Medical Colleges: “Two or three years of 2 or 3% increases, and you’ve pretty much lost what you’ve gained . . . And you’ve certainly lost the morale of investigators who can’t help but be demoralized by trying to compete for funding under those circumstances.” In another notable example, the president-elect of the AAAS in 1990 solicited letters from 250 scientists and discovered that many were unhappy because they felt that they did not have enough funding. From this information he inferred an “impoverishment” of basic research even though, as he acknowledged, science funding had been growing steadily.

In this article I will argue that the annual obsession with marginal changes in the R&D budget tells us something important about the internal politics of science, but little, if anything, that’s useful about the health of the science enterprise as a whole. In particular, marginal budget changes give almost no information about the capacity of the science enterprise to contribute to the wide array of social goals that justifies society’s investment in science. I will return to this point later; first I will focus on the more parochial reality that the annual federal budget numbers for science cannot be understood unless they are placed in a broader political and historical context. A given year’s marginal budget increase says as much about the health of the science enterprise as the nutritional value of a single meal says about the health of one’s body.

One of the most astonishing aspects of science policy over the past 30 or so years is the consistency of R&D funding levels as a proportion of the discretionary budget (Figure 1). (Discretionary spending is the part of the budget that is subject to annual congressional decisions about spending levels.) Since the mid-1970s, nondefense R&D budgets have constituted between 10 and 12% of total nondefense discretionary spending. Total R&D (defense and non-defense) shows a similar stability at 13 to 14% of the total discretionary budget. This consistency tells us that marginal changes in the R&D budget are tightly coupled to trends in discretionary spending as a whole.

Given the Balkanized manner in which science budgets are determined, such stability at first blush may seem incomprehensible. After all, no capacity exists in the U.S. government to undertake centralized, strategic science policy planning across the gamut of federal R&D agencies and activities. The seat of U.S. science policy in the executive branch is the Office of Science and Technology Policy, whose director is the president’s science advisor. The influence of this position has waxed and waned (mostly waned) with time, but it has never been sufficient to exercise significant control over budgetary planning. That control sits with the Office of Management and Budget, which solicits budgetary needs from the many executive agencies that conduct R&D, negotiates with and among the agencies to reach a final number that is consistent with the president’s budgetary goals, and then combines the individual agency budgets for reporting purposes into categories that create the illusion of a coherent R&D budget. But this budget is an artificial construct that conceals the internal history, politics, and culture of each individual agency.

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