Obama's 2010 proposal is positive for chemistry overall, but the NIH and DOD figures pose difficulties

President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2010 - due to start 1 October - represents very good news for chemical science and for the general research community, according to analysis by officials at the American Chemical Society (ACS). However, ACS says there are a couple of sore spots in the President’s plan - and there is time for some last minute lobbying because it is highly unlikely that the FY2010 budget will be finalised by 1 October. 

The administration’s proposal, which is currently making its way through Congress, would give the National Science Foundation (NSF) $5.3 billion (?3.3 billion) for research and development, which amounts to a 9.5 per cent increase over FY2009. The budget includes an increase for the NSF’s Chemistry Division of nearly 13 per cent, to $239 million. The division supports roughly half of the chemistry research within NSF’s Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

Specifically, the President’s plan contains more funding for NSF grants for priority areas like environmental health and nanomaterial safety, improved climate models, and catalysis for sustainability and energy research. It would also infuse more money into NSF’s Centers for Chemical Innovation programme, which is designed to help create centres that can address major, long-term basic chemical research problems likely to result in transformative research and innovation.

Budget boosts

Beyond NSF, the President’s proposal would provide a boost of nearly 19 per cent for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory.

Chemistry would further benefit from Obama’s plan to bolster funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development (ORD), which would grow by 4.4 per cent in FY2010, after several years of decline. 

EPA’s Computational Toxicology programme - which in part coordinates and implements the agency’s efforts to characterise substance exposure, hazard, and risk - would also receive an increase of about $5 million, as would EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). IRIS is a compilation of electronic reports on specific substances found in the environment and their potential to cause human health effects. 

NIH, DOD are sore spots

Although the administration’s budget proposal for FY2010 contains many benefits for the chemistry enterprise, there are two rather significant causes for concern, according to ACS - the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD) science and technology budgets. 

Obama’s proposal would  create a new research initiative at NIH through which at least $200 million in funds from the economic stimulus package would be designated to support selected areas, including green chemistry and drug research. However, overall, NIH - a major funder of biochemistry - would receive a below-inflation budget increase of just 1.4 per cent increase under Obama’s plan. The agency’s R&D funding would grow to $30.2 billion, a similar increase of just 1.5 per cent. 

The administration’s proposal for DOD is more dismal, slashing overall defense S&T funding by 13.3 per cent. It  would cut DOD basic research by 1.3 per cent to $1.8 billion, reduce the department’s applied research by 16.6 per cent to $4.3 billion, and decrease its advanced technology development by 14.1 per cent to $5.6 billion. ACS notes that chemistry is infused throughout these DOD research programmes.

Moving target

The FY2010 budget is a moving target. Obama’s proposal is currently making its way through Congress and must be negotiated between the House of Representatives and the Senate before it can be forwarded to the President for his signature. In general, both congressional chambers are proposing figures for the key science agencies that are lower than those put forward by the administration. 

In the likely event that the FY2010 budgets of US science agencies are not passed on time, Congress is expected to pass a temporary continuing resolution that will sustain their funding at the FY2009 levels until the actual appropriations are passed and signed into law.

As the new budget unfolds, the President is assuring the science community that research is a top priority. During a 21 September speech at Hudson Valley Community College in New York, Obama expressed concern that the US commitment to R&D has steadily fallen as a share of national income ever since the peak of the space race in the 1960s. He reiterated his goal for the nation to devote more than 3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to scientific R&D.

But in actuality, Obama’s FY2010 budget proposal would only slightly increase the overall federal investment in R&D, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The association’s analysis indicates that the President’s proposed federal R&D portfolio is $147.5 billion, which represents a 0.3 percent, or $491 million, increase over the current level.

The two-year economic stimulus bill that became law back in February makes the FY2010 picture sunnier for scientific research programmes because it infused over $18 billion into the US federal R&D budget. However, there is significant concern about what will happen in FY2011, when these stimulus funds expire. ACS has initiated a campaign to lobby Capitol Hill about the importance of predictable, sustained funding for science agencies in FY2010 and beyond.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA