Research dons urge new budget strategy.
U.S. science and technology spending is now too large, and its bearing on national affairs too great, to allow haphazard or uncoordinated management, says National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President Frank Press. Yet all too often that's what happens when the federal budget-setting machinery tackles key issues or developments -- such as AIDS research, environmental protection or science education -- that must be managed by two or more competing federal agencies, according to a new report Press coauthored. To limit inefficient or redundant investments in such important research areas, the report recommends four changes to the current executive-branch and congressional budget-setting procedures.
The Senate budget committee devoted much of its oversight hearings on science and technology this year to problems resulting from a lack of coordination between the federal government's more than 30 independent agencies. In a provocative address he delivered at the NAS annual meeting last spring, Press offered a proposal aimed at avoiding many such problems (SN:5/14/88, p.313). The Senate budget committee apparently liked his reasoning, because in a June 6 report it asked NAS, together with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Institute of Medicine (IOM), to detail how they would alter the process for setting and evaluating funding priorities in research areas that bridge disciplines or that must be handled by multiple federal agencies. These recommendations are contained in a terse, 18-page report unveiled on Dec. 20 by three of its authors--Press, NAE President Robert M. White and IOM President Samuel O. Thier.
The administration identifies its budget priorities in terms of the mission-related activities of each federal agency. The new report calls for additionally ranking science and technology priorities in terms of three new categories: the science and technology base, which includes training, research and its infrastructure; programs that contribute significantly to national economic, social and political objectives, such as disease prevention, improved environmental quality or national prestige; and very costly initiatives that promise similarly large payoffs in new knowledge, jobs, prestige, economic growth, social welfare or national security.
To ensure that priotity science and technology activities are fostered and managed as well as limited funding will allow, the panel recommends modifying the role of the President's science adviser. He or she would focus much more attention on identifying and articulating priorities within these three new budget categories, and on collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget to see that the administration's budget request to Congress adequately reflects these goals. The panel anticipates that these priorities will at least in part reflect problems identified within the science and technology community by its leaders in government, industry, academia and professional societies.
Congressional budget-writing committees would be asked to state explicitly their science and technology budget priorities. And the new report recommends the President keep tabs -- probably through his science adviser--on how well the newly coordinated federal activities achieve the stated priorities, as modified by Congress.
Last, the new study urges that the Bush administration initiate a study to clarify current federal research spending. Department of Defense (DOD) programs today account for about $39 billion of the more than $60 billion spent on federal science and technology activities, Press says. However, his panel estimates, no more than $5.5 billion to DOD's science and technology share truly qualifies as research in the civilian sense--basic and applied research, or exploratory development. Identifying the exact amount of DOD money going into traditional research, Press and his coauthors argue, should make it easier to assess the size of the U.S. role relative to its foreign competitors, and perhaps even lead policymakers to justify increased science and technology spending.