The University Record, September 11, 1995

Federal funding scene still plagued by uncertainty

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Bob Samors’ column in the September DRDA Reporter. Samors is a government relations research officer in the Washington D.C. office. He offers his views on the current state of the federal research appropriations process.

By Bob Samors
Office of the Vice President for Research

August is a great time to be in D.C. The town is empty, primarily because Congress is on recess, and it is not as hot as July. Then again, in this kind of environment, one can be lulled into a false sense of calm, just before the storm hits.

And what a storm it is shaping up to be. When Congress returns from its break, there will be 25 calendar days before the beginning of the next fiscal year. At present, none of the appropriations bills required to run the government beyond Sept. 30 have been signed into law. While 11 of the 13 have been passed by the House and six passed by the Senate, none have yet made it to the president’s desk for signature (or veto). Add to that the fact that there are significant differences between the House and Senate and between Congress and the president on many issues contained in the various bills, and the potential for impasse and some level of government shutdown come Oct. 1 becomes greater.

Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) prepared an analysis of the results of House action to date on federal support for research and development (R&D). Their findings indicate that, if enacted in their present form, these bills would result in the following:

  • $31.5 billion for non-defense R&D, 5.2 percent less than the rescission-adjusted FY95 levels (the FY96 numbers are 7.9 percent less than the FY95 levels enacted last fall);

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) R&D would receive a 6.2 percent increase over FY95 (this differs from the 5.7 percent increase approved by the Labor/Health/Education Subcommittee because AAAS only counts research-related funds while the 5.7 percent figure applies to all of NIH);

  • Basic research would increase by 1.6 percent, with a 5 percent increase in NIH-funded basic research;

  • By budget function, only health-related R&D would increase, while commerce-related R&D would decline by 50 percent and natural resources and environment-related R&D would drop 20 percent.

    So far, the Republican leadership is focusing most of the research-related cuts on the applied side of the spectrum—targeting programs it views as “corporate welfare” and activities that the private sector would or should support if the government were not involved. However, there are a number of members of Congress, particularly the House Republican freshmen, who, in their zeal to cut the budget, feel that research has not been cut enough.

    During recent floor debates, their own party leaders have described efforts to reduce research spending even further as “cannibalism” and the proponents as “Neanderthals.” It is also important to keep in mind that the Senate has not yet acted on most of the research-related measures, including NIH, NSF and NASA, so the AAAS numbers could change in either direction.

    That uncertainty points up a broader issue. On a wide range of fronts, including research-related issues, there are quite significant differences emerging among the various factions trying to control the debates and set the agenda. Obviously there exist fundamental differences between Congress and the president. In addition, the House and Senate Republican majorities clearly have different approaches to many of the major issues being discussed. Further, within each chamber there are considerable splits within the Republicans about how far and how fast to go.

    The picture in Washington is extremely murky; there is a good deal of talk, but a lot of disagreement even within the majority, and very little has been finalized. What that means is that: 1) I will make no predictions about the outcome of any issue currently before the Congress; and 2) there still exists the imperative and the opportunity to continue educating politicians and others as to the importance of federal support for university-based research.

    In the meantime, I will continue to try to keep you informed about what is going on in Washington and urge you to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.