Federal funding for major scientific agencies is at a 25-year low

Government funding for science is typically immune to political gridlock and polarization in Congress. But federal funding for science is expected to decline by 2025.

Scientific research dollars are considered discretionary, meaning funding must be approved by Congress each year. But it falls into a budget category with larger entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, which are generally viewed as sacrosanct by politicians of both parties.

Federal investments in scientific research include everything from large telescopes supported by the National Science Foundation to NASA satellites studying climate change, programs studying the use and governance of artificial intelligence at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and research into Alzheimer’s disease funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Institutes of health.

Research shows that increasing federal research spending improves productivity and economic competitiveness.

I am an astronomer and also a senior university administrator. As an administrator, I have been involved in lobbying for research funding as associate dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Science, and in encouraging public investment in astronomy as vice president of the American Astronomical Society. I have seen the importance of this type of funding as a researcher who has received federal grants for thirty years, and as a senior academic who helps my colleagues write grants to support their valuable work.

Two-part support

Federal funding for many programs is characterized by political polarization, meaning that partisanship and ideological divisions between the two major political parties can lead to gridlock. Science tends to be a rare exception to this problem.

The public has shown strong bipartisan support for federal investment in scientific research, and Congress has generally followed suit by passing bipartisan 2024 relief bills in April and June.

The House of Representatives passed these bills and, after agreeing with the Senate text, resulted in final bills for $460 billion in government spending.

However, congressional policy documents show a partisan divide in how Democratic and Republican lawmakers refer to scientific research.

Congressional committees in both parties cite more scientific papers, but there is only a 5% overlap in the papers they cite. This suggests that the two parties are using different evidence to make their funding decisions, rather than working from a scientific consensus. Democratic-controlled committees cited technical papers nearly twice as often as Republican-led panels, and they were more likely to cite papers that other scientists considered important.

Ideally, all the best ideas for scientific research would receive federal funds. But limited support for scientific research in the United States means that for individual scientists, obtaining funding is a highly competitive process.

At the National Science Foundation, only 1 in 4 proposals is accepted. Success rates for funding through the National Institutes of Health are even lower, with 1 in 5 proposals accepted. This low success rate means that agencies have to reject many proposals that have been judged to be excellent through the merit review process.

Scientists are often hesitant to publicly advocate for their programs, in part because they feel disconnected from the policymaking and allocation process. Their academic training does not allow them to communicate effectively with legislators and policy experts.

Budgets have decreased

Research has received steady funding over the past few decades, but this year Congress slashed appropriations for science at many top government agencies.

The National Science Foundation’s budget has fallen 8%, leading the organizations’ leaders to warn Congress that the country could lose its ability to attract and train scientific personnel.

The cut to the NSF is particularly disappointing because Congress promised it an additional $81 billion over five years when the CHIPS and Science Act passed in 2022. A deal to limit government spending in exchange for suspending the debt ceiling made it difficult to achieve the law’s goals.

NASA’s science budget is down 6%, and the budget of the National Institutes of Health, whose research is aimed at preventing disease and improving public health, is down 1%. Only the Department of Energy’s Office of Science saw an increase, a modest 2%.

As a result, major scientific agencies are approaching 25-year lows in funding levels as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product.

The feeling of the pressure

Investment in research and development by the business sector is increasing rapidly. In 1990, this was slightly higher than federal investment, but in 2020 it was almost four times as high.

The distinction is important because corporate investment tends to focus on later-stage and applied research, while federal funding goes toward pure and exploratory research that can have enormous downstream benefits, such as for quantum computing and fusion energy.

There are several reasons for the shortage of science funding. Congressional efforts to increase funding, such as through the CHIPS and Science Act and the earlier COMPETES Act of 2007, have been derailed by debt-limit fights and the threat of government shutdowns.

The CHIPS Act was intended to spur investment and job creation in semiconductor manufacturing, while the COMPETES Act was intended to increase U.S. competitiveness in a wide range of high-tech industries, such as aerospace.

The budget ceilings for fiscal years 2024 and 2025 eliminate any possibility for growth. Budget caps are intended to rein in federal spending, but they are a very blunt instrument. Furthermore, non-defense spending amounts to only 15% of all federal spending. Discretionary spending is voted on every year, while mandatory spending is dictated by previous laws.

Entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are mandatory forms of expenditure. Together they are three times the amount available for discretionary spending, so science has to fight for a small slice of the overall budget pie.

Within that 15% share, scientific research competes with K-12 education, veteran health care, public health, small business initiatives and more.

Global competition

While government funding for scientific research in the US has stagnated, America’s top scientific rivals are growing rapidly.

Federal R&D funding as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 1.2% in 1987 to 1% in 2010 to less than 0.8% currently. The United States is still the world’s largest spender on research and development, but in terms of government R&D as a fraction of GDP, the United States ranked 12th in 2021, behind South Korea and several European countries . In terms of scientific researchers as a share of the labor force, the United States ranks 10th.

Meanwhile, America’s main geopolitical rival is growing rapidly. China has eclipsed the United States in high-impact published articles, and China now spends more than the United States on university and government research.

If the US is to maintain its position as a world leader in scientific research, it will need to redouble its commitment to science by adequately funding research.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Chris Impey, University of Arizona

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Chris Impey receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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