Columbia University in New York has invested US$3.1 million in a new centre to bolster climate research while building ties with big business and corporate philanthropists. The idea is simple: the business community has both the resources to promote climate science and a vested interest in the results. The university, meanwhile, is looking for a stable funding source to support its research. Other institutions have taken similar paths, and as long as the science remains independent, everybody benefits. But even if the Center for Climate and Life succeeds, it does not solve the larger problem of stagnant US budgets for environmental research.

The proposal for the centre initially arose from Columbia’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, which has nearly 200 Earth scientists. Most are dependent on research grants for the majority of their salaries. As a News story this week makes clear, it is particularly difficult for young researchers there to get government funding. But even the senior scientists are coming up empty-handed with increasing frequency, and that means more time spent on grant applications and less time spent on science. Money is not always the answer, but federal funding has not kept up with the times.

The numbers say it all. Adjusted for inflation, the US budget for environmental science peaked in fiscal year 2003 at $4.73 billion and then began to decline. Things have improved over the past few years, but only slightly. The budget for environmental science stood at $4.18 billion in 2015, the latest year for which data are available. That is roughly the same as more than two decades ago, but it is safe to say that awareness of the environmental threats posed by resource consumption, rising populations and global warming has increased significantly in that time.

One factor was the financial crisis of 2008. It has taken time for the United States and other countries to recover; there has simply not been as much money to go round. But no comfort has come from the US Congress, where conservatives have sought — unsuccessfully so far — to further reduce spending on climate sciences. Long-standing partisan divides over climate and environmental policy have begun to seep into the debates over funding for basic science, which in the past has remained relatively bipartisan.

Partisan divides have begun to seep into the debates over funding for basic science.

In 2007, the US Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which enabled a doubling of science budgets at several agencies over ten years. America COMPETES was re-authorized in 2010, but lawmakers have yet to follow through with increased funding in the annual appropriations process. Last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed yet another re-authorization of the act, but this controversial version would have actually reduced research spending in various areas, including a 12% reduction in funding for geosciences. It drew a veto threat from US President Barack Obama, and rightly so.

The original drive for America COMPETES followed an influential 2005 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm. It argued that US economic competitiveness depends on innovation in energy, science and technology, and this remains true today. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle say that they want the United States to lead. They say that they want decisions to be based on solid science. But leadership requires energy, and science requires investment — as well as freedom from political interference.