Published online 21 January 2009 | Nature 457, 364-365 (2009) | doi:10.1038/457364a

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Cash boost for US science

Researchers in line for $13-billion windfall.

House Appropriations chairman David Obey unveiled the winners in the economic stimulus bill.House Appropriations chairman David Obey unveiled the winners in the economic stimulus bill.S. J. FERRELL/ CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY/GETTY IMAGES

After getting their first glimpse of the massive financial stimulus bill last week, US researchers are scrambling to work out how to get some of the billions of dollars proposed for science and technology into their laboratories.

On 15 January, the House of Representatives released details of its proposed US$825-billion economic stimulus bill. Along with other spending initiatives and a raft of tax cuts, the blueprint includes new, one-off funding for federal research and development that totals more than $13 billion.

Among the big winners is the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would receive an additional $3 billion — half of its annual budget — of which $2 billion would go directly to research grants. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive $3.5 billion, of which $1.5 billion would be for research at NIH centres over two years; $1.5 billion for building grants at university research facilities; and $500 million for construction on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The Department of Energy's Office of Science would receive $2 billion, which includes $400 million to kick-start the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, which is meant to fund high-risk research in innovative energy ideas.

As expected, other clean-energy initiatives also reaped billions of dollars. Some $4.5 billion would go to efforts to develop a smart electricity grid; $8 billion would go to loan guarantees for renewable-energy technologies (see page 362); and $2.4 billion would go to projects in carbon capture and sequestration at fossil-fuel-burning plants.

Many research advocates had pushed Congress and the incoming administration of Barack Obama for such investments, and predictably applauded the proposal (see Nature 457, 240–241; 2009).

Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington DC, said the bill represents a solid endorsement of the scientific community's argument that investing in research and education provides jobs while laying the foundation for a cleaner, more competitive economy. The trick, he says, will be getting the bill through Congress and then sustaining funding into the future.

"We hope that this gets built into the base and that it is essentially front-loading some of the increases that are planned for 2010 and beyond," says Berdahl. Obama is scheduled to present his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010 in early February.

“Researchers out there could actually spend a lot of money wisely and quickly if it were made available.”


But some have questioned whether the one-time infusion of cash will matter much to agencies whose budgets have flatlined or been lower than expected in recent years. Elias Zerhouni, former director of the NIH, says the stimulus package does not focus enough on sustaining scientists, concentrating instead on the facilities that house them. The current proposal "is too timid and not strategic enough in addressing the long term", he says. "It's short-term wise but long-term ineffective."

Democratic congressional leaders, spearheaded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, developed the bill in consultation with Obama's transition team. Although the legislation is sure to change as it moves through the House and the Senate, the fact that it has the tacit approval of both Pelosi and Obama means that it is likely to survive in some form. Republicans, however, were not consulted.

Most of the stimulus spending would extend over two years, although money for peer-reviewed grants must be awarded within 120 days to ensure it is spent quickly. That could mean that agencies use the money to fund peer-reviewed grants that previously scored highly but were not funded because of a lack of money at the time. At the NSF, individual directorates are likely to be allowed to determine how they will spend the $2-billion windfall. Other chunks have been designated for specific programmes: $400 million, for instance, will go to the major research equipment and facilities programme, which includes large projects that must be approved by the National Science Board. Another $500 million will go to instrumentation, including modernization and retrofitting.

At NASA, the $400 million targeted for the science office includes $250 million to accelerate Earth-sciences projects recommended in a recent prioritization survey by the National Academies. Among other things, that would pay for a climate sensor measuring total solar irradiance to be put back on the next generation of US weather satellites; it had previously been removed to save money.

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Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), chairman of the House Science Committee, called the bill a long-delayed down payment on the American Competitiveness Initiative, which seeks to boost research and education in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences.

Neal Lane, a professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and a former science adviser to President Bill Clinton, says agencies such as the NSF and the Department of Energy will probably be able to absorb and spend the additional funding quickly, in part because they have been planning for increased funding under the competitiveness initiative. The NSF in particular has been faced with a backlog of requests and peer-reviewed proposals for facilities and construction of major research equipment. "Those seem like reasonable places to make a quick and early investment," he says. "The researchers out there could actually spend a lot of money wisely and quickly if it were made available to them." 

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