This may be a pre-emptive strike, or me fulminating at windmills.
Since Congress is finally getting around to the Fiscal Year 2012 budget (six weeks after it started), some budget numbers are becoming clear. The National Science Foundation appears to be getting a small increase, and the National Institutes of Health will probably be lucky with flat funding (summary, subscription needed for full article).
But the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will get a 32 percent cut. This represents about 2.2 million dollars (yeah, that’s an m). The reason? The chief House Appropriations Committee member responsible for the budget for OSTP (Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia) inserted language into the Fiscal Year 2011 spending bill forbidding OSTP and NASA from using money for cooperative activities with China. OSTP acknowledged participating in two dialogues with China in May, after the ban was made into law. The Administration claims the ban is an undue interference with the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy. The amount of money spent? OSTP estimates it at roughly $3500. Just two zeros there. There is a similar ban in the 2012 budget bill, with some language allowing for more flexibility (and notice to Congress of various activities that might be covered under the ban).
So, this is a political fight over China, and what the Congress can do to the President’s ability to conduct foreign affairs. Any claims that this is meant to undercut science, especially in light of no similar cuts in other agencies, isn’t paying attention. Now, that could well be a result of this cut, but it’s not the primary purpose. This is a more elemental power struggle. And another sign that the real challenges for support of science in the government is more priority than party.