OMB Director Jack Lew on Science and Technology Spending Last week, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, appeared at the National Press Club to discuss recent congressional budget actions. Several questions were asked about FY 2001 science and technology spending.
In response to questions regarding the funding balance between life sciences and other sciences, and the funding of other administration S&T priorities, Lew stated:
"I think that we have proven over the last number of years that investments in the life sciences, primarily through the National Institutes of Health, is very, very much in the interest of the American people. There are enormous opportunities for breakthroughs that are being funded. And I think we have also seen over the last number of years that that's not the only area of research that needs to be well-funded, that in order to keep making breakthroughs in NIH research, we need to continue to focus on basic research, on the kinds of things that the National Science Foundation supports in terms of basic science and even mathematics.
"We have put forward proposals that have not been well-funded so far in the appropriations process. In the area of NSF, the House is about a half a billion dollars below the funding levels that we've requested. And let me just give you one example of what would be lost at the lower funding level.
"Nanotechnology sounds like something that's almost science fiction. It's a word that's easy to think is not a real tangible policy. Well, what nanotechnology means to the average citizen is, Will it be able to identify a cancer when it's one cell large?
"It's the kind of breakthrough that will open doors to science and health research that are closed if we don't invest in nanotechnology. With a surplus and a time of economic well-being in the country we have the ability, and I would say we have the obligation, to invest in that kind of forward-looking research. That's why the president put those proposals forward, it's why we're fighting very hard as the Congress considers our budget request for those priorities. We're going to stick to our guns, and we're going to keep insisting on better funding in these areas, because we believe it's very important."
Lew was later asked about earmarking of federal science funds for specific colleges and universities, and the impact which it has had on the administration's science programs. He responded:
"I think that what I've said in the past is that you've seen earmarking in accounts that never used to be earmarked at all, and you've seen dramatic increases in the number of earmarks where there traditionally have been fewer.
"You look at things, whether it's in terms of university research or NASA programs or in the clean water area, there's just been a dramatic increase in the amount of resources -- I don't have the numbers off the top of my head, but I know that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of projects that were designated and the amount of dollars that weren't available for peer review kinds of decisions.
"You know, we believe that in general we should keep trying to push things back towards peer review. I can't say that every single project that's been funded is one that wouldn't have survived peer review, but if it was going to survive peer review, it should have been willing to compete in the process and sort of play by the rules of the system that is designed to select the best projects for funding.
"I think it's a problem because if you look at things like the National Science Foundation, NASA, I think these are the kinds of decisions that really are quite consequential in terms of where we will be 10, 20 years from now, in terms of the basic research that's been done, in terms of the problems that we will have set out to solve.
"And I don't want to suggest that all of the money is earmarked. Certainly it's not. There's still quite a lot of resources that are subject to the competitive process. But it's a trend we have to be concerned about. It's not the ideal way to make scientific decisions, and that -- we've been trying to draw some attention to that."
Key appropriators have stated that budget caps have limited their ability to fund some S&T programs. Lew was asked about the future of these strict spending limits:
"Well, I think the spending caps are going to be raised this year. The question is by how much. Even the budget resolution substantially raises the spending caps. Our concern is that they raise them to a level that doesn't permit adequate resources for the important priorities to be funded.
"We're in a different situation than we were in, in 1997 and 1993, and you have to make decisions that reflect the times. In order to reduce the deficit, we appropriately set very tight caps, and there was discipline on the system, and there was a need for that. In a time of surplus, it's a question of choices, and the amount of additional resources has to be weighed against what you would be able to do in the appropriations process versus the alternatives. I think if you put the priorities that we have proposed for funding out against any alternatives, they are clearly going to prevail. The investments in education are critical to the future of this country, in terms of bringing up another generation with the skills for the new economy and where equality of competition can be offered to kids who grow up in any community in this country.
"If you look at the technology agenda, I really cannot imagine that there would be a substantive argument that we shouldn't be investing in research and development at a time of economic prosperity. Those are -- you don't have the luxury, perhaps, to do that when you're running an enormous deficit. But when you're running a surplus, the question of should we, as a nation, invest in the future that way seems to me to be one that, were there resources, would be bipartisan support for it. If you have artificially tight constraints, we're going to see an awful lot of these things left behind, and I think that would be a mistake. And that's why we're in the debate we're in, in the appropriations process.
"I think the notion that anyone is advocating sustaining the 1997 caps -- we're long beyond that point. The question is what's the right level for the caps. And the difference between us is large, but it's bridgeable. And if the choice is, you know, a tax cut that's $10 (billion) or $20 billion smaller or the investments we're talking about, that's the kind of decision that Congress and the president should make together. We've got our position clearly laid out, and I hope that we prevail in the course of the year. "
Richard M. Jones