There are a limitless amount of technicalities, subtleties and nuances when dealing with a national budget, especially when for the first time that budget exceeds the $3 trillion mark, and leaves your country $407 billion in deficit.
So let me make one thing perfectly clear. While there are some good things in this budget for the US environment, you cannot weigh that against the losses.
What I mean is that there will be those who cry that “the government gave environmentalists something, be happy with that!” To them I will say this: if you are suffering from a terminal illness, and someone gives you a car, it’s a good thing, but you’re still dying!
I’m going to take a quick look at what the White House budget for Fiscal Year 2009 has to offer the sciences. This will hopefully give us a better viewpoint in to what the environment will get out of it, in relation to science as a whole.
First of all, we’ve got comparisons between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
This budget gives focus to the physical sciences, represented by the latter three listed above, by asking for a double-digit increase, while leaving the NIH with continued flat funding at $29.5 billion.
The proposed request in favor of the physical sciences begins to offset what many believe was an inordinate increase in funding to the NIH budget, ending in 2003 and following a 5-year doubling of their budget. Presidential science adviser John Marburger believes that the request will smooth out the kinks in the federal government’s portfolio by providing the physical sciences with their increase over a 10 year period.
Marburger went on to say though that he thinks that the biomedical community should be able to do more research with the same amount of money. “Frankly, I think that an argument can be made that better management [of NIH] can bring about much better productivity even with flat resources,” he told reporters at a budget briefing. “The private sector does it all the time.”
Naturally that sort of talk didn’t go down well with biomedical scientists, who have – from their way of thinking – lost out. “We reject the premise that funding science in one area or at one agency must come at the expense of another,” says Bob Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. “There is no doubt that NSF and DOE merit the significant increases the president has proposed. But neglecting NIH at the same time is failing to grasp the interconnectedness of science.”
Sliding this line of thought through to the environment, we can look at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) surprise move of withdrawing the $331 million Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) off the budgeting table. “It was a big surprise to us,” says Steve Bohlen of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. “NSF had given us every indication that we were ready to go” after the agency conducted a preliminary review of the project in December.
This first act against the environment sadly doesn’t even come from the White House, but the NSF Director, Arden Bement. He believed that his decision last year to hold firm to a “no-cost-overruns” policy which subsequently saw the withdrawal (pending a review later this year) of the OOI project as a good decision.
Bohlen noted that the delay will thus incur a higher overall cost for the project, a cost that Bement accepts. “I’d be lying if I said anything else,” Bement told Science. “But it’s a balancing act; we also need to follow our rules.”
Along with the NSF, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and NASA all received bumps in their spending. Bringing this finally to the White House’s view on the environment, we begin with the good, before I depress us all with the bad.
NASA has been granted $103 million to put focus on new missions that were given priority by a survey conducted by the US National Research Council in 2007. These missions include ICESat II, which is being designed to measure changes in the height of ice-sheets, and currently planned for launch in 2015. Another mission, entitled SMAP, is planned to measure soil moisture and freeze-thaw cycles, will launch in 2012.
However the proposed amount (a total of $910 through 2013) is well short of the $1.5 billion that the survey had proposed.
An additional $74 million has been pledged to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help save several projects facing collapse. Primarily, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program has recently been threatened with cancellation thanks to massive military-civilian overruns.
A surprising entry in to this budget is a grant of $8 million to the new Birds Forever Initiative. The grant will allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to increase monitoring, assessment and conservation of migratory bird species (although this is apparently a mistake, as you’ll see in Budget 09: How’d the Environment Do – the Bad, up now!).