NAS/NAE Report Addresses Federal S&T Budget Planning

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Publication date: 
8 December 1995
Number: 
171

"The existing U.S. research and development system works well in
periods of continued expansion in missions and funding but is not
as appropriate in periods of static or declining budgets."
--Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology

Last year, in its FY 1995 appropriations report for NIH (S. Rept.
103-318), the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned how best
to allocate federal dollars for various areas of science.  It asked
the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of
Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine to address "the criteria
that should be used in judging the appropriate allocation of funds
to research and development activities, the appropriate balance
among different types of institutions that conduct such research,
and the means of assuring continued objectivity in the allocation
process."

While budget pressures were tight a year ago when the Senate
committee made its request, they have only gotten worse in the
intervening time.  The chairman of the NAS committee that studied
the issue, Frank Press (former NAS president, now of the Carnegie
Institute of Washington), remarks in the report's preface that "the
charge was daunting when it was requested...and is even more so
now."  He states that the 18-member Committee on Criteria for
Federal Support of Research and Development "approached its task
with realism about the budget pressures...and a concern for
fairness in evaluating the many parts of the enterprise." 

The result of the committee's effort, a 97-page document entitled,
"Allocation of Federal Funds for Science and Technology," was
released on November 29.  It not only defines a more coherent way
to calculate the federal investment, but suggests policies for more
efficient use of that information, and sets forth examples and
guiding principles for policy makers to consider as they allocate
funding for R&D.  The document recognizes that the federal system,
built up over the 50 years since World War II, needs to be examined
in light of the modern era, but also reminds readers of the
strengths and tremendous success the current system has had.  The
report's theme, Press states, is "continuance in the face of
change": continuing to build on a successful system while updating
it for the requirements of today.  Far from an endorsement of the
status quo, however, the report notes that both the
Administration's and Congress's plans for federal discretionary
spending, including science, contain significant reductions over
the next several years.  It  calls for the "painful" identification
and reduction of outdated research programs to free up funds for
areas of greater opportunity.

The committee begins by redefining the federal R&D budget.  While
this amount is usually estimated at $70 billion annually, the
report states that "almost half of this amount...is spent on such
activities as testing and evaluation" within DOD, DOE, and NASA.
The committee prefers instead to look at just funding for
"those...activities that produce or expand the use of new knowledge
and new or enabling technologies."  This amount, currently about
$35-40 billion a year, the report defines as the Federal Science
and Technology (FS&T) budget. 

The report also discourages the separation of funding into basic
versus applied, or science versus technology.  It claims that "the
distinction between basic and applied science is often difficult to
make and is rarely decisive in defining the federal role," and
"there is no reason to abandon the historical balance between
support for science on the one hand and enabling technology on the
other."

The committee's first and foremost recommendation is that, in each
budget cycle, "government support for basic and applied science and
technology be presented, analyzed, and considered in terms of an
FS&T budget."  In contrast, it notes that in the past, "with the
exception of selected recent initiatives, the federal R&D budget
has been tallied up after the fact..."

The document draws heavily on a 1993 NAS report by the Committee on
Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) entitled,
"Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals
for a New Era."  That paper suggested a (theoretically) simple
yardstick for determining the appropriate federal investment in
R&D: "The United States should be among the world leaders in all
major areas of science" - poised to take advantage of any important
discovery - and should lead the world in certain specific areas
determined as most important to the country.  Assessments of the
U.S. position in a field would dictate whether its funding should
be increased or decreased.  (See FYI #90, 1993.)

Recognizing that with decreasing budgets, funds must be reduced in
some areas in order to emphasize others, the new document uses this
yardstick as a basis for making priority decisions among and across
scientific disciplines within a comprehensive budget.  "Only in
this way," it asserts, "can the President and Congress determine
the levels of investment for important, high-priority areas... make
the trade-offs needed to free up funds for new initiatives... and
incorporate the results of systematic program and agency
evaluations."  It also stresses that its advice is general in
nature, and "the committee believes that those who must make the
decisions and execute them should be given the latitude to apply
these principles sensibly."

In its recommendations, the report extols the virtues of
competitive merit review and research performed at universities;
favors projects and people over institutions; urges international
cooperation on large, expensive projects; advises keeping national
labs focused narrowly on agency missions; and expresses skepticism
about government involvement in commercial aspects of technology
development. 

Noting that the report "proposes fundamental changes in the process
by which we fund science and technology," Presidential Science
Advisor John Gibbons remarks in a written response, "I can tell you
from experience that it will not be an easy task."  House Science
Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) has "expressed great
interest" in the document.  He is praised in the report for his
attempt to unify much of the science budget within H.R. 2405, the
Omnibus Science Authorization Act, but the report also has
reservations that Walker's vision of a unified Department of
Science would separate federal research too far from the
departmental missions it supports.

Please see FYI #172 for detailed information about the committee's
13 specific recommendations.  The report can be purchased from the
National Academy Press at 1-800-624-6242.  It is also available at
no charge on the World Wide Web at http://www.nas.edu/anp/online/

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