Ehlers Decries Bill's Research Deficiencies
“In a year full of rancor and limited cooperation, one issue rose above the others and found strong support from the President, Congress and American people: the critical role of innovation in U.S. global competitiveness,” Ehlers said.
“The broad support of that concept culminated in the historic passage of the America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August. The Act recognized the responsibility of the federal government to support basic scientific research and education conducted across the federal agencies, and the integral relationship between federal research and our nation’s economic competitiveness.
"It also directly responded to the recommendations of an esteemed National Academies report, which called for doubling the federal budget for long-term basic research in fewer than 10 years," added Ehlers.
Ehlers said the omnibus bill, officially called the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008, "fell dramatically short" of the funding needed for scientific research.
"Though modest increases were provided for NSF, NIST and the Office of Science, these increases essentially evaporate when Congressionally directed funds, rescissions and inflation are considered. In light of the strong support requested by the President in his budget proposal, and the additional increases provided by both houses of Congress in their separate appropriations bills, the final numbers were an unanticipated blow.
“The original intent was to double the budgets of these agencies, starting with the baseline of enacted funding from fiscal year 2006. Two years later, we are not even close to starting on that pathway. Furthermore, there is no way to sugarcoat the funding level for science and math education at the NSF, which has dropped to the lowest it has been since 2000, and a full 20 percent below the amount authorized in the COMPETES Act," said Ehlers.
He said it is "already apparent that several Department of Energy projects and facilities may immediately have to be shut down."
"That is bad enough," Ehlers told the Business Journal. "But the problem is, there are so many earmarks in that bill. If they cut back on the earmarks, they could have easily funded the scientific research at the level we previously agreed to."
Almost 9,800 "earmarks" were added to the omnibus spending bill by lawmakers, adding more than $10 billion to the federal budget.
Bush reluctantly signed the bill into law but said the earmarked projects "are not funded through a merit-based process and provide a vehicle for wasteful government spending."
Ehlers said the impacts of the lower levels of funding for scientific research may not be felt for years.
"We are eating our technological ‘seed corn,’ and subsequently sacrificing the pipeline for future discovery and economic development. Despite the research community’s best efforts to explain to members of Congress why these pressing problems can only be solved by consistent basic research, innovation remains a low priority for those who hold the purse strings."
Ehlers added that the laser is a prime example of federally funded research that has "paid for itself many times over," citing its myriad applications today in medicine, construction and industry.
He said this is the second time an omnibus federal spending bill has given short shrift to science, adding that it is "impossible to read it all before you vote on it."
"It's a lousy way to run either a railroad or the federal government," he added.