Published online 27 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.403

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Obama promises spending boost for science

Ambitious target for economically tough times.

President Barack Obama bolstered his lofty promises to US scientists on Monday, saying he would push through an historic increase in research and development funding.

Obama pledged to raise the country's R&D budget to 3% of the national gross domestic product from today's nearly 2.7% — an increase of roughly $46 billion annually. The government currently picks up about one third of the tab. Assuming that trend continues, public funding would need to increase by about $15 billion annually, says Rick Weiss, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Obama has been trying to push through funding increases for basic science agencies.

"This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history," Obama said in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences' 146th annual meeting in Washington DC.

John Marburger, science adviser to former President George W. Bush, called 3% of GDP a "healthy target" but said the trick will be getting industry on board. "The federal government can't do all of that by itself," he says. "Remember, two-thirds of that figure is coming from the private sector, and we're in the middle of a recession."

Marburger says Obama made the right decision to propose permanently extending the research tax credit to give private companies a stable incentive to invest in research and development. Bush proposed the same thing as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, which sought to boost funding for math, science and engineering, but it was never fully funded during Bush's tenure.

Even with a Democratic Congress behind Obama, it remains to be seen whether he can deliver on his promises. In February, he and Congressional leaders pushed through an economic stimulus package that included over $21 billion in science funding. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins in October, the president has requested $12.6 billion for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"Nobody can accomplish all of the objectives he has, but I think it's better to move haltingly in the right direction than speedily in the wrong direction," says Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University in California. "We're now in a no-excuse environment," adds J. Craig Venter, the genomics pioneer now working on sustainable energy issues. "We have to deliver."

Obama called clean energy the current generation's "great project" and said that ongoing economic woes should not be used as an excuse to scale back investments. "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before," he said.

"Sure, we're sceptical, but there's enormous reason to be optimistic," says academy president Ralph Cicerone.

Obama also reiterated his pledge to double cancer research between 2008 and 2017 at the National Institutes of Health, whichspent nearly $5.6 billion on the topic in 2008. Among other pledges to boost math, science and engineering education, Obama promised to triple the number of graduate research fellowships at the National Science Foundation; in 2008, the foundation awarded fellowships to 913 out of 8,146 applicants.

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Obama also named the full suite of members to the President' Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). As previously announced, PCAST will be co-chaired by Harold Varmus, director of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Eric Lander, a genomicist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Obama science adviser John Holdren. The full PCAST membership includes 17 other researchers, including Nobel-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail, computational scientist David E. Shaw, plant geneticist Barbara Schaal and physicist S. James Gates Jr.

In November, the outgoing PCAST left a self-assessment saying among other things that it had had too many members, at 35. 

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