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March 1, 2005

While federal spending on defense and nondefense R&D has been approximately even for several years, the 2005 budget ends that parity, with defense spending now making up 56.7 percent of the federal R&D portfolio. The emphasis on defense R&D and homeland security will almost certainly mean a skewing of funding toward certain “hot” areas and to applied research. This year’s budget, for example, will spend $8.8 billion for the further development of national missile defenses, up 15.8 percent.

Overall, Homeland Security’s R&D budget increase of almost 20 percent was the biggest percentage jump among all the federal research agencies, according to analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Within this department, the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) has been allocated a little more than $300 million a year; HSARPA’s mission is to fund research at university and private labs, and it is mainly devoted to late-stage technologies that would be ready for market in three to five years, according to Vayl Oxford, the agency’s acting director. A main area of funding is sensor technologies for biological, nuclear, and chemical warfare agents.

The increases in defense and security spending come at the expense of the research budgets at the National Science Foundation and at other non-defense-related agencies. Incoming NSF director Arden Bement saw his research budget for 2005 cut by .3 percent from the previous year. The cutbacks come just two years after a law was signed authorizing the doubling of the NSF budget between 2002 and 2007; indeed, NSF’s budget had been on the rapid rise since 1998. But according to AAAS, the decrease in funding for 2005 will likely make doubling the budget just a pipe dream.

What the politicians are forgetting, say some technology experts, is that investing in basic research across a wide range of fields is also critically important to national security. “Our ability to respond [to an attack] is related to our innovative and technological capacity, and that depends mightily on the funding of basic research,” says RPI’s Jackson. She says she is most concerned about the cuts to the budget of NSF, because “it’s the personification of support for basic research. It supports research across the broadest front, it’s not specifically tied to a mission, and it supports education.” Indeed, 80 percent of NSF’s R&D money goes to colleges and universities, the highest percentage among all federal funding agencies.

There are signs that cutbacks in non-defense-related research over recent years are already having an impact. Take robotics—a field in which the United States has traditionally been strong. “NSF really doesn’t fund robotics anymore,” says Alan Peters, a professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. The situation is worrisome enough that U.S. government agencies have formed a coalition of scientists to report to Congress on the state of American robotics research and funding this spring.

NIH, which over the last few years was the darling of Congressional appropriations committees (enjoying 15 percent annual increases from 1998 to 2003), has had its funding growth grind almost to a halt. In 2004, the total NIH budget increased by 2 percent, the smallest increase in decades, and much of that was allocated to research on biodefense, where spending rose by 3.8 percent to $1.7 billion. As recently as three years ago, NIH funding for biodefense was $162 million. Another notable casualty of the 2005 federal budget was the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Established to help support startup companies developing innovative but early-stage technologies, the ATP program has long been the target of the Republican administration. And while President Bush failed in his attempt to axe the program this year, the final 2005 budget did slash ATP’s funding to $136 million, a 24 percent decrease from 2004.

Technology Review editors Gregory T. Huang, Corie Lok, and David Rotman contributed to this report.

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