US boosts science spend

This week, when President Clinton signs the Budget which he has agreed with Congress for the 1999 financial year, federal spending on scientific research will receive its strongest boost for years. Congress and the President have been singing the praises of science and technology for a couple of years. The Budget surplus has allowed them […]

This week, when President Clinton signs the Budget which he has agreed with Congress for the 1999 financial year, federal spending on scientific research will receive its strongest boost for years.

Congress and the President have been singing the praises of science and technology for a couple of years. The Budget surplus has allowed them to put their money (or, more accurately, other peoples’) where their mouths are.

The National Science Foundation, which supports non-biomedical university research, gets an 8% increase on its $3.5bn (£2bn) budget. The Department of Defense, which remains the chief sponsor of engineering and computer research in US universities, will spend 6% more on it next year the first real increase since 1993.

But the most spectacular beneficiary of the 1999 Budget is the National Institute of Health (NIH), which gets a $2bn increase, taking its annual support for biomedical research to more than $15bn.

While most scientists and engineers welcome all this money for the life sciences the arrival of which was fuelled by the immense popularity of health research in Congress some wonder if the US research portfolio is becoming lopsided in favour of biology.

Societies and lobbyists representing engineers, physicists and chemists in Washington have been trying hard to keep up. They were put on the defensive a few years ago, when a Republican Congress seemed intent on making cuts in research spending. As happens rather too often in the US capital, the lobbyist for these threatened interests rebounded and emerged stronger and more coherent than ever.

They convinced the Clinton administration to support budget increases not just for NIH but also for other research agencies in its 1999 Budget proposal. They built support for a measure, passed by the Senate two weeks ago (but not yet signed into law) that would lay out a plan to double overall research spending over a 12-year period. And they persuaded Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives, to commission a study of science and technology policy.

The study, released last month, was bland, but at least represented a statement of interest from the lower house.

As a result of all this, the White House, the Senate and the House are now each reading from the same page on research policy. If good economic times continue to roll in the US, a lot of money is going to become available for research.

With Japan on the ropes economically and Europe still lacking a coherent approach to research policy, it is hard to see what threatens a US hegemony of science and technology at the dawn of the new millennium.

Colin Macilwain