U.S. Bailout May Set Back Science Funding, Experts Fear

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"Scientists are not a very effective political lobby. They haven't had to be because everybody sort of sees them as doing God's work. But when budgets get tight, other groups might wind up being more effective at saving themselves."

Even before the current crisis, some leaders were concerned that the increases in Social Security and Medicare spending brought about by America's aging population would put a squeeze on future budgets.

"[Seniors] are taking an ever bigger bite out of the overall tax dollar," Finneran said, "making it much more difficult for government to find the funds for any of its discretionary activities. That includes science, but it even includes things like the Defense Department."

Presidential adviser Marburger said this problem has been foreseeable.

"I have been preaching caution about future science budgets for two years," he said.

"I always knew future budgets would be impacted by the relentless increase in the mandatory portion of the federal budget, and by the need to chip away at the budget deficit. The cost of restoring confidence in the financial markets simply adds to those concerns."

Not Totally Bleak

Still, the situation may not be totally bleak.

To begin with, concerns that the U.S. is underfunding research aren't new.

"[It's] a theme that runs through American science-policy discussions over the past 50 years," said Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes.

And while there have been bad periods, Sarewitz believes that American research remains vibrant.

"It's not particularly debatable that the U.S. has the preeminent [research and development] enterprise in the globe. I think we start from a place of relative health," he said.

Also, the experts say, it's far too early to predict the precise impacts of the bailout.

To start with, nobody knows exactly what form it will take or how much money will actually be involved.

Also, the impact needs to be put into the proper context. If the alternative is a recession, then staving that off, or at least limiting it, might actually help science funding, according to Goldston, the former committee chief of staff.

"Science spending depends on the size of the overall domestic pie. That depends on the state of the economy," he said.

The next President might even decide to increase federal spending as part of an economic stimulus package, increasing science funding in the process, he said.

Marburger added that Congress has "a large, bipartisan respect for science."

"I expect there will be an effort to do something for science, even if it is only to protect it from the worst cuts," he said.

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