OSTP Director Marburger Addresses Policy Forum

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Publication date: 
14 May 2008

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger addressed the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy last week.  This was Director Marburger's seventh appearance before this annual meeting in Washington.  The following are excerpts from Marburger's address


Marburger cited a policy paper by Daniel Sarewitz in the Summer 2007 issue of "Issues in Science and Technology" and commented "Another insight of Sarewitz's paper, to which I have repeatedly called attention because of its importance for forecasting the outcomes of policy struggles in Congress, or between the Executive and Legislative branches, is the remarkable stability of federal R&D funding as a percentage of the domestic discretionary budget.  Exactly how this happens each year is somewhat mysterious.  It's like trying to infer the laws of thermodynamics from the behavior of the individual molecules in a gas.  The small scale motion is chaotic and irreproducible, but the overall behavior always comes out the same."

"Regardless of the circumstances, the give and take of politics, including all the partisan dealing, all the lobbying, and all the local issues that intrude on the national scene, ends up giving research about the same fraction of the discretionary budget every year in Administration after Administration.  The time series has bumps, but they rarely range outside a narrow band." [Sarewitz calculated this as 13 to 14 percent of the total discretionary budget for all R&D.]


"Many have complained about the impact of the 2008 Omnibus Bill on research.  It did have negative effects, which I will mention in a moment, but the Omnibus Bill did provide increases for some important science areas, just not as much as the President's proposal, and much less than the appropriations bills being considered in the subcommittees.  And of course it did not reflect the priorities for funding either in the President's American Competitiveness Initiative, or in Congress's America COMPETES authorization bill.  As the dust settles, however, once again research will have received approximately its usual slice of the pie."


"I think this pattern will likely persist in future Administrations.  I think it will actually be difficult to match the increases in research funding that have occurred during the Bush years.  There is much mythology about this, and much quibbling about definitions and what the numbers really mean, but overall there is a much greater amount of research money on the table today than there was at the beginning of the Administration. [See Marburger's full speech for exhibits.]  Everyone has their own ideas about how it could have been distributed differently, both among fields of science and over the years.  But there cannot be any question that this country has significantly boosted spending on research during this Administration.  The myths of downward trends in science spending are based on measures other than actual dollars spent.  Patterns of U.S. science funding do show some disturbing trends, and they need to be fixed.  But if we dwell only on those trends I believe we indirectly raise false expectations that future Administrations will be able to solve science funding problems simply by adding more funds to the pot.  As always there will be winners and losers."


"During my tenure in Washington I have seen three remarkable issues around which consensus among stakeholders has sprung up with an almost religious fervor.  The successful doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003, the successful establishment of the new area of 'homeland security research', and the as yet unsuccessful introduction of a set of actions, including selected research increases, to bolster future national economic competitiveness.  The lack of success of the latter is quite unusual given the very wide and intense support for it across parties and sectors. . . . it is one of the most serious pieces of unfinished policy business begun in this Administration."


"There is no question that there is now a large and unhealthy imbalance among funds for various sectors of science, usually described as biomedical research versus physical science, engineering, math and computer science.  Federal support for the latter has languished for several decades.  Now federal support for biomedical research has languished for half a decade.  The budgets are still out of balance.  We would certainly be better off today if the 109th Congress had passed its appropriations bills before going home.  They would have begun to restore balance and start the building up of a technical workforce in fields badly needed for future progress in all parts of science and technology.  This year, for the third year in a row, President Bush has proposed a path forward that aims to shrink the gap for critical fields where global competition is very strong."


"I think of the ACI [American Competitiveness Initiative] and America COMPETES initiatives as unfinished business on an agenda that will continue to receive wide support because they address real and widely recognized problems.   But maintaining that support will require continual effort by the organizations like the Council on Competitiveness and many others that have already worked so hard to make the case.  The case has to be made over and over again as the political actors change."


"There are other important challenges in our science coverage.  Smaller agencies, like NIST, USGS, NOAA and research units within other departments whose main mission is not science, often provide services that are critical to many other departments.  Appropriators for these agencies have little incentive for heeding the needs of these other stakeholders.  Think of the Geological Survey, for example, which Google and all the rest of us rely upon for land imaging.  The increasingly urgent problem of water management depends on USGS research.  Earth imaging programs of all sorts will need to grow in the future and be sustained through stable management structures within stewardship agencies.  The visibility of NIST has been increased because of its inclusion in the ACI, but it has yet to receive the kind of boost its research budget requires to maintain its part of the innovation infrastructure.  Within the huge Department of Defense the basic research function has some of the characteristics of a small agency.  DoD basic research funding has drifted since the end of the cold war, much to the detriment of university based engineering research.  The good news for DoD research in the FY09 budget proposal is a dramatic shift of resources toward the 6.1 basic research category.  The reconstruction of the basic research function in DoD will take years, and will only happen with constant support from the highest leadership levels.  I give [Defense] Secretary Gates much credit for encouraging and supporting this initiative, and hope his successors follow the same path.  Finally while NIH is certainly not small (although some of its institutes are), its budget cannot remain flat much longer.  It will need to increase in a predictable, sustainable way in the future if we are reap the value of our very substantial investment in biomedical research."


"In the immediate future, the best thing that could happen for U.S. science is for Congress actually to pass a budget for FY09 as part of its regular business this year.  I would like to see a bill that funds the President's request and finally launches a competitiveness initiative.   The 2008 Omnibus bill seriously wounded U.S. interests in high energy physics and the international fusion energy project, ITER, and it weakened our long term prospects for competing successfully in a globalized technology intensive economy.  That is the wrong signal to the American people, to the science and engineering communities, and to the world.  The sooner Congress can pass bills moving us forward from this dreadful position, the better.  As to the prospects for a supplemental budget that adjusts funding for FY08, the issue is rapidly becoming moot because two thirds of the year have passed already.  Timely passage of FY09 budgets  -  which is after all what Congress is supposed to do - at this point would be the strongest bridge to the future."


'The Policy Context for R&D in FY2009' [the title of this section of the meeting] begins immediately with the need for scientists and engineers who may be recruited by the next President to prepare themselves to say 'yes' despite what may seem to be enormous down-sides to this and other senior positions in the Executive branch.  Whoever becomes President, whatever party gains or loses power, and regardless of the specific policy environment in the next Administration, our government needs men and women who understand the science and engineering machinery in our society, and are prepared to make it work for our nation.

"An invitation to serve in a senior politically appointed position is not an invitation to bargain with the Administration about significant policy issues, as many of my science colleagues tend to do.  There isn't enough time for that.  If you really want to help science, you help it regardless of the 'Policy Context'.  Policies significant for science get shaped over a long period of time, very rarely overnight.  But beginnings are important.  Things need to get started immediately to take advantage of the sense of opportunity that always occurs with a new Congress and a new Administration. . . .  I do want to make the point that there is important work to be done here, and much of it cannot be done through the advisory boards, commissions, committees and think tanks that academic scientists favor.  Too many talented and experienced scientists and engineers who express interest in powering the nation's science machinery hang back from doing it as federal employees.

"So let me praise the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a long list of partner organizations for sponsoring and expanding the all-important AAAS Fellows programs that not only increase Washington's technical sophistication, but also spread appreciation among technical communities for how Washington works, and the nature of its rewards for a scientist or engineer." [Click here for information on AIP's Congressional and State Department Fellowship Programs, and its Member Societies' programs]

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