After cuts in 2008, plans to double budget revived

US President George Bush wants to get the budget for physical sciences research back on track after the swingeing cuts it faces this year, but biomedical research could suffer in his budget proposals for 2009.

Released on 4 February, Bush’s budget request for the 2009 fiscal year would increase basic research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by 15 per cent overall.

If approved by Congress, that would put the three agencies’ science budgets back on track to double - as set out in Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) two years ago.

The news has been welcomed by the research community, which was left reeling in December when only one-third of the president’s requested increase for the three agencies in 2008 was funded and substantial amounts of money tied up in Congressional earmarks.

Bush’s budget would also see $1.52 billion go to the interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative, up from $1.49 billion today. The programme funds research in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. In addition, there’s $4.5 million for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund nanotechnology safety research, which would bring the agency’s total investment in this area to of $14.9 million. The agency has faced criticism for not doing enough to ensure that nanomaterials are not a threat to human health.

At the same time, however, Bush has asked for nothing more for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports biomedical research. Under his proposals, the agency’s budget would be flat-funded at $29.47 billion (?15 billion). 

That has caused alarm, with Robert Berdahl, the president of the Association of American Universities, calling the decision ’disturbing’. If the request is approved, it will mean that the NIH’s purchasing power has been cut by one-seventh over six years.

Despite being pleased with the proposals overall, the American Chemical Society (ACS) is also concerned by the funding requested for NIH, which is a major funder for biochemistry.’The mission of NIH is too important not to be keeping pace at least with inflation,’ said ACS spokesperson Glenn Ruskin.

Ruskin said the group will now lobby Congress to adopt the funding levels that Bush proposed for the physical science agencies and to significantly increase support for NIH.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA