Who Will Speak For The Mission Agencies?

Dan Sarewitz’s latest commentary in Nature speaks to what he sees as a bias toward blue-sky research (perhaps more familiar on this side of the Atlantic as fundamental or basic research) in federal support.  He makes an argument that this emphasis is a particular challenge in an era where government funding of science will likely be static, if not contracting.  (One can dispute this last part, but I think it even harder to argue that the large increases of the last dozen years will continue.)

He gives the numbers.  Since 1995, budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have changed in terms of multiples, while research funding for agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense, and others have not even doubled in the last sixteen years.  For such a supposedly pragmatic country, the research budget dynamic in the U.S. favors the undirected projects to a significant degree.

When you consider one of the largest expansions of federal support for higher education in the country (the creation of the land grant universities in the late 19th century) also spawned the agricultural extension service, the shift away from focusing on research directed (or even nudged) by users’ needs (unless you consider researchers to be your users) is remarkable.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that the fundamental research community should expect serious cuts.  As Sarewitz notes, the advocates in Washington spend most, if not all, of their efforts on the budgets for NIH and NSF.  Perhaps that’s another maxim to attach to his name (the other would be that federal science policy is usually federal science policy funding).

The mission agencies, however….There probably aren’t enough data points for a trend, but for FY 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget was cut and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) budget had no change.  Meanwhile the NSF and NIH budgets enjoyed increases (not large percentage changes, but given the bigger base of each budget, we’re talking serious money).

Who is going to advocate for the research budgets for those agencies without Health or Foundation in their names?  And will the typical science voices let them speak?  There is some effort to support more funding for NIST and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.  But that effort – the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act – is still linked to the NSF.

I don’t have solid answers for these questions.  I’ve tried to argue before that the present economic climate provides a greater opportunity for new and different research tools to prove their worth.  I think the same could be true for advocacy.  But there seems to be less interest in changing tactics for a new funding landscape, in part because those who have been doing the talking aren’t necessarily committed to supporting the whole research enterprise, just their piece of it.

So, who will speak for the mission agencies, and how will they talk?  Are there groups of users that need to be motivated like the U.S. Geological Survey customers Sarewitz notes?  Probably.  Anyone want to help me find them?

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