Although the subject has received scant attention amid the Republican drive to slash government spending, proposed cuts in funding for the nation’s scientific community would cut deeply into important research at universities and laboratories, scientists say.
Under a plan now making its way through the House, funds for environment and energy research, commercial technologies and other endeavors would be cut by as much as 33%, or $5.7 billion, over the next seven years, according to a report by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.
“This is unprecedented,” said Richard Nicholson, executive director of the association. “Since World War II there have never been cuts of this magnitude proposed for [civilian] research and development.”
House budget cutters say they are distinguishing between basic research and applied research. They are trying to preserve funding for basic research, defined as scientific inquiry with no specific goal, and make most of the reductions in applied research, which is work done with a particular goal or breakthrough in mind.
Research funding has fared somewhat better in the Senate, where lawmakers have moderated some cuts to energy research and favor smaller cuts in other programs. But both houses of Congress are operating under the same budget constraints and must eventually agree on the size of the reductions.
In the House proposal, the Climate and Global Change Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has studied the destructive El Nino weather pattern, would drop 30% next year.
Scientists have made strides in predicting an El Nino condition as far as a year in advance. El Ninos are warm water currents that cross the Pacific Ocean and end up off the coast of South America, disrupting weather patterns. Last winter’s El Nino caused $1.8 billion in flood and crop damage in California.
John L. Kermond, a visiting scientist at the Office of Global Programs, which runs the Climate and Global Change Program, said the next step in El Nino research is more specific regional forecasting.
“We can predict the onset of an El Nino, but as to the regional impact and specificity, we don’t have that ability yet,” Kermond said. “Knowing [the condition] is coming but knowing what it’s going to do to Northern California versus Southern California--we can’t do that.”
If the budget plans prevail, there will only be enough money to fund the broader El Nino forecasting--not enough for more research on regional forecasts. Scientists estimate that with better long-range weather forecasting, agriculture alone could avoid $2.7 billion in damages as farmers accommodate the expected conditions.
Even in some areas where funding is not cut sharply, scientists say research will suffer. For example, the House has cut by 8% the 1996 budget of NOAA, which includes the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The National Weather Service would retain most of its funding.
“People understand the need for weather services and they understand the need for weather satellites,” said D. James Baker, NOAA’s administrator. “So what happens is when [NOAA] take cuts, those things tend to be fully funded. Then our oceans, our fisheries, coastal zone management and research are things that take the brunt of the cuts.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service regulates the commercial fishing industry by managing fish stocks. Research on ocean fish populations would be cut back, which could eventually lead to overfishing.
Scientists say some cuts will affect the ability of businesses to compete in the global market. Those cuts cannot be offset by the private sector because businesses are reluctant to undertake many applied research projects because of financial risks. The governments of many U.S. trade rivals fund such efforts lavishly.
One example is the House proposal to eliminate the $340-million Advanced Technology Program, which provides grants for companies to look into technologies that could have commercial applications.
Among other things, the program enabled a group of Michigan manufacturers of autos and auto body parts, working with university scientists, to develop technology that is beginning to allow U.S. car makers to build cars with tighter-fitting body parts, like such parts made by some Japanese companies. A tighter fit means fewer vibrations and rattles and less wind noise.