Extra federal support comes through economic stimulus measure

US president Barack Obama has signed into law a massive economic stimulus bill that contains an extra $21.5 billion (?15 billion) in federal research and development support, impressing the scientific community after less than a month on the job. The measure, which was enacted on 17 February, provides an immediate cash infusion - though scientists are also concerned about the potential impact when the extra money runs out.

The biggest winner in the stimulus package is the nation’s biomedical research agency - the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - which scored an extra $10 billion on top of its current $29 billion budget. The measure also represents a windfall for physical science agencies, giving the National Science Foundation (NSF) an additional $3 billion and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science an extra $1.6 billion. This new money is on top of their respective budgets of $6 billion and $4 billion.

The US Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also gets a bonus of nearly $600 million through the stimulus, which is nearly double its current $737 million budget. The measure gives these agencies until September 2010 to spend all of the extra money. 

Scientist support

The research community has praised the president and Congress for acknowledging that scientific research is an important economic driver. The development is especially welcomed after roughly five years of flat or declining federal research funding. 

’This is a very good thing for chemistry,’ American Chemical Society (ACS) spokesperson Glenn Ruskin told Chemistry World. He notes that the US government largely funds chemistry through NIH, NSF, DOE and NIST, and the substantial lifts these agencies have received should filter down to chemists. 

’This helps those of us who are in academia because that money goes to the grants that allow us to do the research,’ says Bill Carroll,  a past ACS president and adjunct chemistry professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. ’This is an investment in commerce from the perspective of building new molecules, new therapies, and new chemistries that lead to businesses that employ people and contribute to the economy,’ adds Carroll,  who is also director-at-large and vice president of Occidental Chemical Corporation, a manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride resins, chlorine and caustic soda based in Los Angeles, California.

Future fears

But despite the enthusiasm and gratitude, alarm bells are being sounded from within the scientific community. There is widespread concern that these one-time budget increases might not be sustained. There is a reasonable possibility that the future budgets of these agencies will revert back to previous levels.

’It would be a mistake for anybody to take their foot off of the gas pedal here and say that this is the shot in the arm we need,’ Ruskin warns. ’As soon as funding looks like it’ll be cut, facilities close and researchers start to get laid off.’ 

A growing chorus of voices is rising to advocate consistent and sustained federal support for research. Some in the chemistry sector are also articulating another concern about government interference. 

’The government needs to limit its reach and recognise that it is very capable of crowding out the private sector if it chose to do so, and that is not in its best interest,’ Carroll states. ’The marketplace is better at picking out winners and losers because it lets those technologies slug it out for the dollars that people will invest.’

Now that the stimulus measure has become law, the relevant science agencies are putting together plans for handling and managing this sudden influx of significant capital. Meanwhile, stakeholder are looking toward 2012 and hoping that the wealth will be continued.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA