The surprises just keep coming. Even off the back of the worst economic crunch seen in many years, US President Barack Obama has evidently concluded that science should continue to be privileged. His US$3.8-trillion budget request to Congress, unveiled on 1 February, contains generous funding for basic-science research, including a proposed 8% boost for the National Science Foundation and the largest percentage increase since 2003 for the National Institutes of Health (see page 594). Nearly every research agency emerges as a winner in Obama's budget proposals. Even NASA, heavily curtailed in its plans for human exploration of space, is slated for an increased spend on science.

The rises are remarkable given the political and fiscal stresses being experienced by the United States. Obama's administration has been trying to prove that it cares about responsible spending, and one focus of the proposed budget has been reining in the deficit, which is projected to reach up to $1.6 trillion in the next year. The administration thus dutifully declared a freeze at present funding levels for most non-defence discretionary spending programmes — those that Congress has authority to change from year to year, which excludes major mandatory items such as social security and Medicare health-insurance programmes.

Because such discretionary spending accounts for about a seventh of the national budget, this freeze comes as something of a hollow gesture. Yet it is remarkable that even so, scientific research is mostly exempt.

Whether Congress will approve the budget is the question, given how little the president and Congress have managed to get done together, even before the Democrats lost their overwhelming majority in the Senate following last month's Massachusetts election victory by a Republican candidate. However, if the budget goes through as something resembling Obama's proposal, funding levels for basic-research agencies would stay on track for a doubling over ten years. Before researchers begin rejoicing at the prospects of more money for grants, they would be wise to remember that the economic downturn continues to resonate in many areas.

Universities continue to suffer record drops in their endowments, with many researchers at public and private universities going on involuntary unpaid leave. Competition for graduate-student and postdoc places is fierce, with many qualified students being turned away. This is particularly worrying because training the next generation of scientists and engineers is one of the primary themes of the Obama administration. In announcing his budget this week, he argued again that investment in scientific research would lead to jobs and new industries down the line. That may well turn out to be true but, in the short term, students and young researchers are still feeling the pinch.

Future investment from the private sector also remains unknown. US venture-capital spending plunged by 31% from 2008 to 2009, according to market tracker Dow Jones VentureSource, although the biotech sector emerged the least scathed, with 'only' an 11% drop. It remains to be seen how venture capitalists and larger corporations that survive the economic downturn will restructure and rethink their investments in research and development.

Nevertheless, researchers can be relieved at the proposed increases in the presidential budget. But they need to be aware that expectations will be high for delivering on this largesse, and for accountability.

One form of accountability lies in the administration's laudable effort for government transparency. To this end, research agencies can be supportive by posting high-value data sets from their grantees on As of this week, there remained much opportunity for improvement; agencies were trickling out fascinating but stubbornly limited data sets, such as the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received by the National Science Foundation last year. Full transparency will help to inform the American people as to whether their tax money is being best spent.

Another more contentious form of accountability lies in the extent to which the science budgets are deployed on research that is intended to address short-term problems. Research communities can anticipate pressures to move the balance of research effort in that direction. However researchers respond, they will need collectively to go to unprecedented lengths to convince the nation that the president's trust was not misplaced.