The Domestic Initiative
In a Lean Budget Year, A Pledge for Research
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
With Washington bracing for an austere budget year, President Bush last night proposed a 10-year, $136 billion initiative that would double the federal commitment to basic scientific research and train tens of thousands of new math and science teachers.
The president's "American Competitiveness Initiative" may lack the ambition of last year's effort to dramatically reshape Social Security, but in size and scope it dwarfs other domestic proposals in health care and energy research that had been heavily promoted in the run-up to the State of the Union address.
It was also welcomed by scientists, after two years of relative austerity. The National Institutes of Health will absorb its first spending cut in three decades this year; last year, the National Science Foundation had to tighten its belt.
Now the president will ask Congress to increase spending on federal research and development next year by nearly $6 billion, to a level that would be more than 50 percent higher than the level he inherited in 2001. Under the initiative, the budgets of the NSF, the Energy Department's Office of Science, and the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology would double over 10 years, with $50 billion in new funding.
"I have to say we're delighted," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "If this plays out, if Congress appropriates these kinds of funds, it will be a serious national commitment to a future science-based economy."
In his speech, Bush put far more emphasis on an energy research-and-development effort that he said by 2025 would replace three-quarters of the oil imported from the Middle East. He pointedly did not renew his call to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
"We have a serious problem," Bush said. "America is addicted to oil."
But whereas his science program was denominated in billions of dollars, his energy program was in millions. Research into emissions-free coal plants would get $54 million in the fiscal year that begins in October. Solar power would get an additional $65 million. And wind energy would get a $5 million increase.
Bush also called for $59 million in additional funds for developing fuels out of agricultural waste, such as wood chips, switch grass and stalks, with the aim of making such "cellulosic ethanol" competitive and practical within six years.
"It's important that this president, who made his living in the oil patch, is confronting what he called America's addiction to oil," said Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition. "This is an important step for this president, and I hope Congress is more aggressive than he has been."
But after years of cuts, Bush's proposals would barely get renewable-energy funding back to where it was at the end of his predecessor's administration, said Dan Reicher, an assistant energy secretary for renewable fuels and conservation under President Bill Clinton.
"I wish the president had seen the green light six years ago," he said. "Then we'd be a lot further along then we are today."