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

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
Updated September 29, 2008
With the U.S. Congress wrangling over a $700-billion bailout plan for the financial crisis this week, the final contours of any bailout are hard to predict. But some experts say that any bailout—or even no bailout at all—may set back funding for science.

The concern isn't that Congress will turn anti-science, observers note.

Lawmakers' attitudes toward scientific research have always been "fairly positive," said David Goldston, former chief of staff for the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. (See a gallery of the best science photos of 2008.)

But there simply might not be enough money to go around. "The biggest factor is what's happening with overall domestic spending," Goldston said.

John Marburger, science adviser to U.S. President George Bush, agreed. "The problem is that if the discretionary budget shrinks, then to keep science whole something else has to shrink even more," he told National Geographic News.

And science is a field in which spending may not pay off for many years.

"In the meantime, [the concern is] I'm losing my house, I'm losing my job," said Kevin Finneran, editor in chief of the National Academy of Sciences journal Issues in Science and Technology.

"Something that delivers long-term benefits loses prominence in a climate like that."

Forseeable Problem

Among scientists, one group that may be particularly hard hit is young researchers at the start of their careers.

"If lack of funding drives our most promising young people away from careers in research, the long-term damage to science could be significant," Finneran said.

To prevent this, he said, scientists may have to learn how to fight for what research dollars they can get.

"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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