With Finite Resources: Administration R&D Budget Priorities

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Publication date: 
26 August 2004

In an August 12 memorandum to federal department and agency heads, OSTP Director John Marburger and OMB Director Joshua Bolten set out the Bush Administration's R&D budget priorities. Among these priorities in this five-page memo were nanotechnology research and fundamental research in the physical sciences.

Even though it will be weeks, and perhaps months, before Congress finalizes the budget for the fiscal year starting on October 1, the Administration is hard at work on the FY 2006 budget submission. While the OSTP/OMB document contains few surprises, it helps to illuminate what is traditionally the "black box" process involved in drafting the budget request.

At the outset, the memorandum cites "an extensive, continuous process of consultation" with the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (http://ostp.gov/pcast/pcast.html ) and collaboration with the interagency National Science and Technology Council in the development of the Administration's R&D funding priorities. Also mentioned were three documents: "A 21st Century Frontier for Discovery: The Physics of the Universe" (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/075.html) and two climate change reports (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/101.html).

The FY 2006 R&D budget priorities closely parallel the guidance released last summer (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/107.html .) Both the FY 2005 and FY 2006 documents identify homeland security as the first priority; with the new memorandum explaining, "winning the war on terror and securing the homeland continue to be the highest of national priorities." In addition to a list of specific threats for which desired technologies are listed, Marburger and Bolten stated "fundamental R&D should be considered to address and counter new or novel threats."

"Networking and Information Technology R&D" and nanotechnology are the second and third listed priorities in the new memorandum, which switched positions as compared to last year's document. Nanotechnology is described as a "top Administration priority," and both documents cite the importance of the National Nanotechnology Initiative's support of fundamental and applied R&D. This year's memorandum explains that "because research at the nanoscale offers natural bridges to interdisciplinary collaboration, especially at the intersection of the life and physical sciences, the Administration encourages novel approaches to accelerating interdisciplinary and interagency collaborations."

A new section this year describes "Priorities of the Physical Sciences." The full text of this section of the August 12 memorandum follows:

"Investments in the physical sciences likely to lead to or enable new discoveries about nature or strengthen national economic competitiveness continue to be important. Priority will be given to research that aims to close significant gaps in the fundamental physical understanding of phenomena that promise significant new technologies with broad societal impact. High- temperature and organic superconductors, molecular electronics, wide band-gap and photonic materials, thin magnetic films, and quantum condensates are examples of novel atomic and molecular-level systems with such gaps where coherent control holds great potential.

"In addition, the development or enhancement of instruments and facilities can extend our scientific reach in ways that often have broad impact. The range of such investments is large, from bench-top devices such as the scanning tunneling microscope to the national-scale synchrotron and neutron user facilities. Priority will be given to those instrument- or facility- related investments with the greatest promise for the broadest scientific impact. Of particular interest are investments leading to the development of next-generation light sources. In their budget submissions, agencies should seek to coordinate their investments in instrumentation, upgrades, and user programs at national scientific user facilities.

"Within discovery-oriented physical sciences investments, priority will be given to those projects and programs that are demonstrably well coordinated with related programs in other agencies or other countries. Examples of well coordinated, inter-agency investments in the discovery- oriented sciences are described in the interagency working group report, ‘A 21st Century Frontier for Discovery: The Physics of the Universe.'"

Not found in this year's memorandum were words similar to those from last year's document which stated, "The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has urged increased investment in certain areas of physical science, citing opportunities for continued scientific discovery and the fact that such discoveries often drive advances in other areas of science. Budgetary proposals for these or any other area must be specific regarding how the programs will expand scientific frontiers in a manner consistent with stated agency missions and national goals and demonstrate coordination with similar programs in other agencies. The desire to achieve parity in funding levels among disciplines does not by itself suffice to justify funding increases."

This year's memorandum next lists "biology of complex systems" as a priority area. The document explains that "Agencies should target investments toward the development of a deeper understanding of complex biological systems through collaborations among physical, computational, behavioral, social, and biological researchers and engineers."

Concluding the priority list in both memorandums is what this year's document calls "climate, water, and hydrogen R&D." The August 12 memorandum calls for agencies to implement the 2003 "Strategic Plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program" identified above. Also identified as a high-priority concern "is the ability to measure, monitor, and forecast the U.S. and global supplies of fresh water." Regarding hydrogen, the memorandum states, " Finally, agencies should continue research efforts in support of the President's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative; this includes research outside of the subset of activities currently counted as part of the Initiative. Agency efforts should address the critical technology barriers of on-board hydrogen storage density, hydrogen production cost, and fuel cell cost, as well as distributed production and delivery systems. R&D should focus on novel materials for fuel cells and hydrogen storage (including nanostructured materials), durable and inexpensive catalysts, and hydrogen production from renewable energy, nuclear energy, biological and electrochemical processes, and fossil fuels with carbon sequestration."

The August 12 OSTP/OMB memorandum can be viewed at: http://www.ostp.gov/html/m04-23.pdf

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