AS THE 2014 congressional elections approach, federal funding for scientific research should be a hot topic. Republican-led cuts, followed by flat funding of programs that used to be points of bipartisan pride, have jeopardized the country’s dominant position in global science. If that status were to be lost completely, there would be enormous consequences: No longer would the United States attract the world’s leading scientists and thereby gain cutting-edge industries that employ millions of people. And it’s not that the federal budget can’t afford an increase: In just one year, the projected deficit has been chopped in half because of a combination of fiscal discipline and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for high earners. That allows for more budgetary flexibility, especially in vital areas like science.
Alas, the latest bill to emerge from the House Republican caucus, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014, opens a new front in the attack on government funding for research. Proposed by Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House science committee, the FIRST Act would slash funding for social science, but use the savings to boost support for biology, physical science, and engineering. That would serve a political purpose as well, enabling otherwise unsupportive GOP representatives to claim that they, along with their Democratic opponents, favor increases in funding for “hard” sciences.
It all adds up relatively little: The amount the National Science Foundation spends on social science is very small in budgetary terms — a bit over $270 million in 2013 — and thus the 45 percent cut included in the bill’s latest version would only cover a modest hike in funding for the hard sciences. That comes after repeated GOP attempts to cut overall funding for science by far greater amounts. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan includes a $7 billion cut in research funding over five years in his proposed 2015 budget. Last summer, House Republicans moved to cut $259 million from the NSF and $928 million from NASA. During the sequester, struck as a compromise to resolve a debt-ceiling crisis, the National Institute of Health’s budget was reduced by over $1.5 billion, which forced the institute to fund 703 fewer grants in 2013 than in 2012.
These cuts and proposed cuts are a long-term threat to the economy. A 2010 report by The Science Coalition details 100 companies — including tech giants Google, Hewlett Packard, and SAS — that began life with federal grants and now have combined annual revenues of more than $100 billion. Slashing science funding now could stunt economic growth for years to come. In the near term, Congress should vote down the FIRST Act. In November, voters should express their strong interest in restoring the historically bipartisan commitment to science. And they shouldn’t be gulled by gimmicks like cutting social science in favor of hard sciences.