End of the Spectrum: The Changing Trend in U.S. Research Funding

February 1, 2006
Prachi Patel-Predd

Volume 21, Issue 2

Most of the 2.2 billion dollars increase in the 2006 federal research and development budget will go toward defense weapons development and human space exploration technologies, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Most of the 2.2 billion dollars increase in the 2006 federal research and development budget will go towards defense weapons development and human space exploration technologies, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This might be a sign that the focus of U.S. research spending is shifting from basic, exploratory research to a more predictable and readily applicable kind. Together with a research budget that is not keeping up with inflation, scientists believe that this could affect the country's ability to lead science and technology innovation in the future.

"The shift in the federal research investment portfolio [is] troubling...basic research needs to be a higher priority," says Ken Dill, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California (San Francisco, CA).

The change in research funding priorities affects analytical chemists and spectroscopists just as much as it affects scientists in any other discipline. The non-profit Coalition for Bridging the Sciences, of which Dill is a co-founder, will address these concerns at a special symposium entitled "Funding US Research: Challenges and Opportunities" that will take place during this year's Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy (PittCon).

In addition to Dill, the symposium's speakers are Arthur Ellis, director of the division of chemistry at the National Science Foundation (NSF); Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; and John Porter, who has served on the U.S. Congress for 21 years and is familiar with the funding landscape in the government. Through the speakers' different perspectives, the symposium will provide a broad look at various issues related to research spending, and what they mean for practicing chemists.

Most of the national science agencies cover chemistry, providing generous funds for R&D in various areas such as nanotechnology, materials science and biochemistry. But the influx of money into chemistry is unlikely to increase in the future because of federal budget constraints, Dill says.

A slowdown in growth is already apparent at the NSF, where Ellis says the division of chemistry budget has been relatively flat since FY 2003. This creates challenges across all the research areas the division supports.

While NSF funds are not growing fast enough, the AAAS analysis shows that the fate of other agencies is even more worrisome. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget has fallen for the first time in 36 years, dropping by 0.1% to $28.6 billion. The Department of Energy Office of Science R&D portfolio has fallen 0.4%, and the Department of Defense's (DOD) basic research funding has gone down 2.9%. Whereas the total R&D budget for 2006 is increasing by 1.7% to about $135 billion, 97% of that increase is going to the DOD weapons development and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's human space flight programs.

Even if the government spends more money on basic research, the rate of inflation makes the finances insufficient, according to Dill. "In a nushell, the U.S. R&D budget is simply considerably too small for a high-tech country in a high-tech world," he says.

This in turn influences the kind of research that the science agencies support. "In times of tight budgets there can be a tendency toward conservatism in the proposals and reviews that the division of chemistry receives," Ellis says. In other words, lower risk research could get preference over fundamental research.

In comparison, in the late 40s just after World War II, the government strongly supported fundamental science research without regard to immediate outcomes. "Many of the most important discoveries through which physics has really impacted biology, like X-ray crystallography, mass spectroscopy, NMR spectroscopy... happened long before there was any clear implication for biology," Dill says.

But these days federal science agencies more readily fund grant proposals based on predictability and preliminary results; in Dill's words, "the impact they will have in the next 3 years as opposed to 30 years." The NIH, for example, funds grants for basic physics research on NMR or X-ray crystallography that will impact biology. If one wants to invent the next big thing after X-ray crystallography or a new way to do NMR spectroscopy, however, he says it is harder to find funding.

If this trend continues, it might severely impair the U.S.'s capability to innovate and compete with other technologically advanced countries in the long term. Government support for basic R&D in the past few decades has paid off in terms of innovations such as lasers, computers and the internet. "But if we rest on our laurels we risk the prospect of not being competitive anymore," Dill says, "and once you lose your position it is hard to get back."