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Fact-Checking Bush on Research Spending

The president’s comments on basic research aren’t quite true.
January 29, 2008

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Bush blamed Congress for failing to fund his American Competitiveness Initiative–a failure that led to hundreds of researchers losing their jobs. But he was only telling part of the story.

In the address, President Bush said, “Last year, Congress passed legislation supporting the American Competitiveness Initiative, but never followed through with the funding.” He then asked Congress to “double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences.”

The request for doubled funding is a repeat from 2006, when Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, which would, over 10 years, double the funding at key agencies involved in physical-sciences research. The initiative was in response to a National Academies report highlighting the need to increase basic research funding if America is to remain competitive worldwide.

So far, those funds have failed to appear. The 2007 budget request included the funds, but the appropriations bill stalled. (See “Alternative-Energy Spending Fizzles Out.”) The 2008 budget request also included the funds, but again, the spending was never approved by Congress.

But the president’s statement that Congress “never followed through with the funding” leaves out the fact that Congress failed to do so in part because of pressure from him. The funding increases for basic research had actually been included in a catchall spending bill, but they were cut at the last minute in response to veto threats from the president, who had set a firm limit on the amount of domestic spending he would allow. The added research money put the bill over the limit, and the Democrats weren’t willing to cut money from other areas, such as the funding for energy research that Bush had wanted to be cut. What’s more, nearly a billion dollars in earmarks–Congressional pet projects–also directed money away from basic research.

As a result, hundreds of researchers from two national research labs who had been expecting increases in funding suddenly found themselves without jobs. The cuts have also put in jeopardy two international research projects, including one for a large experimental fusion reactor that could address long-term energy needs. (See “Federal Research Funding Cut.”)

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