OSTP Director John Marburger on Science Policy and Budget Issues

Share This

Publication date: 
24 May 2007

Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Marburger addressed the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in early May. This was Marburger's sixth consecutive address to this annual forum. Selections from his remarks follow on policy issues, earmarking, the outlook for funding, the impacts of the doubling of the NIH budget, and new sources of funding for university-based research.


"Ultimately the science posture of a nation expresses itself in the myriad activities of its scientists and engineers, students and technicians – activities that may or may not sum to a coherent or effective whole. No law of nature or of politics guarantees that this real-life science posture will reflect a sensible science policy. The only hope of coherence in our national science posture is for all the diverse actors to agree on a general direction and give it priority year after year.

"Such a consensus has been achieved on some important science policy issues during the past six years. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the science community came together in a remarkable show of unity to support what would obviously be a difficult and protracted struggle against terrorism."

Citing his previous speeches, Marburger stated: "I also raised and reinforced concerns about the negative impacts of security measures on the conduct of science, and reported on actions OSTP and relevant departments and agencies were taking to mitigate these impacts. This is a continuing area of concern that deserves constant attention from the science community. While the student visa situation is much improved, we still have serious policy challenges ahead, including concerns about a cumbersome and graceless visa process for visiting scientists, implementation of the export control regime, potential over-regulation of dual-use bioscience, and security arrangements that stifle user programs at key national laboratories.

"The good news is that there IS a consensus among nearly all actors that these are problems that need to be addressed. The danger is that with time the salience of these issues will diminish and momentum toward solutions will be lost." Marburger cited interagency committees and other organizations that have been working on issues such as biosecurity and export control regulations as laudable examples of how these issues are being resolved.

He continued: "Wide consensus also exists on the importance of federally funded science to our nation’s long term economic competitiveness." After citing 'Rising Above the Gathering Storm,' Marburger commented: "Notable among its recommendations was increased funding for basic research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering – areas that had stagnated while the budget for biomedical research soared. The report even recommended that investment in these areas should increase 'ideally through reallocation of existing funds, but if necessary via new funds.' That statement is a rare recognition of the fact that federal funds for science are limited and that some programs may have to be held constant or reduced to fund priorities. The Administration’s response to this consensus was the American Competitiveness Initiative [ACI], which among other things proposed doubling budgets for NSF, NIST and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science over ten years."


After commenting on how FY 2007 funding in the Continuing Resolution (CR) was free of earmarks, Marburger looked ahead and remarked: "What happens next will be extremely interesting. If Congress permits earmarks in its FY08 appropriations bills, it will in effect be taking away the agency flexibility it granted in the Continuing Resolution, returning budgets the agencies can evaluate and use effectively to the base the President uses in his requests. President Bush has asked Congress to cut the total amount of earmarks in half. If Congress does that for the science budgets – without removing the associated funds it granted in the CR – it would be wonderful for science.

"What Congress decides to do here will signal its priorities for research. The ACI prioritizes basic research in key agencies that have been relatively underfunded given the importance of the fields they support for long term economic competitiveness. Because two Congresses have now failed to fund the first year of ACI at the level the President has requested, it is now behind schedule. The Administration's FY08 request aims to catch up. The Administration continues to believe it is essential to rectify a long growing imbalance in the pattern of research funding affecting the prioritized agencies. Despite much good will toward the ACI, and recent actions on competitiveness bills by authorizing committees in both the House and the Senate, the fate of this important initiative remains in doubt. What these agencies need is appropriations for their underfunded basic research programs. They do not need new programs or new bureaucracy, new reporting requirements, or new constraints on how they use their funds, all of which are features of the authorization bills. My plea to Congress is that it protect the basic research aims of the ACI from suffocation under the weight of all these other trimmings -- 20 new programs in the Senate bill alone."


"I believe we can do all the R&D we need to do, and very much of what we want to do, but I do not believe we can accomplish this the way we would like to do it, namely by simply appropriating more federal funds.

"Neither this Administration nor any future one can escape the urgent demands of 21st century realities. The struggle against terrorism is real and persistent. Climate change demands attention. Globalization is bringing the problems of countries around the world to our doorstep. And we have yet to address the looming crunch of entitlement programs in our own country-- funded through the relentlessly expanding mandatory portion of the federal budget.

"All these demands impact the Domestic Discretionary Budget, which for decades has not grown as fast as the Gross Domestic Product. It is an empirical fact that the science share of the discretionary budget has remained practically constant over time, so of course its share of GDP has fallen too. Many science advocates, including probably most people in this audience, have used the resulting decline in ratio of federal research to GDP to argue for bigger federal science budgets. Because of the constraints on the discretionary budget, this argument will not be effective in the long run."


"Last October I gave a speech to the annual meeting of the Council on Governmental Relations in which I expressed my concern about the mismatch between research capacity and the federal resources to sustain it. I claimed that 'the universe of research universities has expanded to an economically significant size, by which I mean that the sum of financial decisions by its individual members has an impact on the resources available to any one of them. It is not quite a zero-sum game, but we have moved into a new operating regime where the limits of the "market" for research university services are being tested.' The doubling of the NIH budget that occurred, with everyone's blessing, over a five year period ending in 2003, was an experiment in the rapid expansion of a broad but still well-defined scientific field. The most obvious lesson from this rapid growth is that it could not be sustained. There is a deeper lesson.

"It is clear that the doubling has had a profound impact on the nation's biomedical research enterprise. It helps to think of this enterprise, and R&D activities generally, as a miniature economy with its own labor pool, markets, productive capacity, and business cycles. The response to the NIH doubling has been an abrupt increase in research capacity, financed not only by the direct federal investment, but by state governments and private sector sponsors eager to leverage this investment, not least to enhance competitiveness for additional federal funds. We now have an enlarged biomedical R&D labor pool – a new generation of researchers – who are populating new expanded research facilities and writing federal grant proposals in competition with the previous still-productive generation of their faculty advisors. And they are training yet another generation of new researchers who hope to follow the same pattern. I cannot see how such an expansion can be sustained by the same business model that led to its creation. The new researchers will either find new ways to fund their work, or they will leave the field and seek jobs in other sectors of the economy. This sub-economy is unregulated, and we can expect it to experience booms and busts typical of unregulated markets.

"Under the stimulus of federal funding, research capacity as measured in terms of labor pool and facilities can easily expand much more rapidly than even the most optimistic projections of the growth rate of the federal research budget. New capacity can only be sustained by new revenue sources. In this connection it is noteworthy that the federal research budget is dwarfed by private sector research expenditures. Under the pressure of increased competition for federal funds research universities are in fact forging new relationships with private sponsors, and I expect this trend to continue. . . . The economics of university based research are beginning to change to a new model with diversified sources of revenue.

"Federal science policy should encourage this change. Not only will it enable an expanded research enterprise, it will also promote development of capacity in areas likely to produce economically relevant outcomes. Moreover, economists have documented a positive correlation between industrial research investment and national economic productivity, and to the extent this correlation indicates a causal relationship, increased industrial research will be good for the economy.

"The message here is that federal funding for science will not grow fast enough in the foreseeable future to keep up with the geometrically expanding research capacity, and that state and private sector resources should be considered more systematically in formulating federal science policy."

Marburger's entire address may be read at: http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhm%202007%20AAAS%20Policy%20Forum%20Final.pdf

Explore FYI topics: