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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Analysis of Efforts to Double Federal Funding for Physical Sciences and Engineering Research

John F. Sargent Jr.
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Federal funding of physical sciences and engineering (PS&E) research has played a substantial role in U.S. economic growth and job creation by creating the underlying knowledge that supports technological innovation. Some Members of Congress and leaders in industry and academia have expressed concern that recent public investments in these disciplines have been inadequate in light of the emergence of new global competitors and the science and technologyfocused investments of other nations. A 2005 National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, requested by several Members of Congress, recommended doubling federal basic research funding over seven years, with an emphasis on selected fields, including PS&E, to address this issue.

President George W. Bush subsequently launched the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which sought, in part, to double funding over ten years for targeted accounts at three federal agencies with a strong research focus on physical sciences and engineering—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. In 2007, Congress enacted the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69) which set authorization levels for FY2008-FY2010 for the targeted accounts that established, implicitly, a seven-year doubling path. Subsequently, Congress passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358), setting FY2011- FY2013 authorization levels for these accounts that implicitly extended the doubling path to 11 years. President Obama has supported the doubling effort, but has changed the doubling period from 10 years in FY2010, to 11 years in FY2011, to an indefinite period in FY2012. Opposition to the doubling effort has centered primarily on concerns about increased spending in light of current economic conditions. Some contend that additional research funding may not increase innovation and that scarcity of funds elicits stronger research proposals.

Progress toward doubling the targeted accounts has been slower than originally sought. Through FY2010, Congress had appropriated funding for the targeted accounts consistent with doubling over 11 years, close to the pace set by the ACI though slower than the pace set by the America COMPETES Act. However, FY2011 funding for these accounts fell by 2.3%, extending the doubling pace to 15 years. While doubling proponents have considered past growth rates inadequate, obligations during the doubling effort have grown at slower pace than during the three previous ten-year periods. In addition, while the growth rate for PS&E basic research through FY2008 increased somewhat compared to the growth rate of the previous decade, at this pace it would take more than 17 years to double. Moreover, PS&E applied research decreased between FY2006-FY2009. In total, PS&E research (basic and applied) for the FY2006-FY2009 period grew slightly in current dollars but fell when adjusted for inflation.

Congress has a variety of options related to the doubling effort, including providing more funds for the targeted accounts; changing existing funding to better align with overarching goals of the doubling effort (e.g., national competitiveness, economic growth, job creation); shifting PS&E applied research and development funding to PS&E basic research; identifying and adopting new mechanisms to promote expanded cooperative research and technical collaboration among industry, academia, government, and others, and more effective approaches to technological innovation; exploring other mechanisms for meeting the economic goals of the doubling effort by further incentivizing private sector efforts; identifying and adopting mechanisms by which the United States might promote increased access to and use of PS&E research performed in other nations; accepting a slower doubling path; or delaying or abandoning the effort.

Date of Report: August 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R41951
Price: $29.95

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