Published online 14 January 2009 | Nature 457, 240-241 (2009) | doi:10.1038/457240a

News

Science tipped to score in Obama cash stimulus

Researchers jockey for a piece of the US economic package.

Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats brought scientists and economists to the table.Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats brought scientists and economists to the table.G. HERBERT/AP

The US research community stands to gain billions of dollars in funding, as Democratic leaders in Washington DC seek to lay the foundation for a greener, more competitive economy in a $750-billion stimulus package.

Scientific groups are actively pushing their argument that modernizing the nation's scientific infrastructure could help create the skilled workforce needed to address challenges such as global warming.

"It's amazing. The scientific community has a voice," says Maria Zuber, a geophysics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who testified before Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democratic leaders on 7 January. "The fact that we are invited to sit at the table with the economists when we are talking about the future of the US economy — it's like a new day."

Normally, the president proposes government spending levels in early February, and Congress adjusts and approves those over many months. The fiscal stimulus package introduced by Obama last week provides a shortcut.

The question is what kind of science and energy initiatives lawmakers will be willing to approve in a bill that is intended to provide a short-term jolt to the economy. Many Republicans are opposed to the scope of the package, and congressional Democrats have baulked at the notion of fast-tracking a bill sent down by the new administration. Pelosi said last week that she wants to see a bill by February, despite Obama's call to have it ready by his inauguration on 20 January.

Representatives from the American Physical Society began talking to Obama's transition team shortly after the November 2008 election, and have developed a shortlist of desired projects at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The price tag stands at nearly $3.5 billion for dozens of projects, including renovations and upgrades at various Department of Energy labs and supercomputing work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

'Shovel-ready' projects such as these feature heavily in Obama's stimulus package, which would also include extensive tax cuts. "The only things that are in this list are approved projects" that have already gone through planning, says Michael Lubell, head of public affairs for the American Physical Society. He says the transition team warned against including anything that would constitute an ongoing funding commitment. "We are not talking about the long-term grant programmes or anything else," he says. "This is very, very short term, because those were the ground rules."

It is not clear whether calls for basic research funding, as opposed to infrastructure and technology, will make the cut. Several organizations, including the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Association of American Universities, last month asked Obama for $1.2 billion for some 3,200 grants at the National Institutes of Health, along with an additional $1.9-billion increase in the 2009 fiscal year.

Bill Andresen, president of The Science Coalition, which represents 45 US universities, says that their goal is not a one-time boost but a rise for research funding that at least keeps up with inflation. "Whatever money is in the stimulus bill, we can spend quickly and create jobs immediately — while at the same time laying the groundwork for a more competitive economy," he says.

In their testimony last week, both Zuber and Norman Augustine, an aerospace engineer who chaired an influential National Academy of Sciences panel on US competitiveness, advocated boosting funding for the physical sciences. In 2007, Congress authorized a doubling of the physical-sciences budget under the American Competitiveness Initiative, which lawmakers have yet to fully fund. House Science Committee chairman Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee) says he hopes Congress will include pieces of the initiative in the stimulus bill, although he doesn't specify which parts.

Lubell says that one area in which the incoming administration has shown a willingness for long-term projects is energy and climate, as have other countries (see 'Japan greens up'). Speaking last week at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Obama said his administration plans to double the production of renewable energy over the next three years while boosting energy efficiency in 2 million homes (1.6% of US housing) and in more than 75% of federal buildings. Obama has also called for modernization of the electricity grid, an initiative that could cost upwards of $165 billion, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.

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Democratic lawmakers are keen to include energy-efficiency initiatives, including weatherproofing assistance for homeowners, but questions remain about how to address renewable energy in the bill. Officials in the wind and solar energy industries say Obama's goal of doubling renewable-energy production was possible before the economic meltdown, but financing for new projects has since dried up, forcing some companies to lay off workers.

These industries are now pushing lawmakers to free up money by altering the structure of federal tax incentives that encourage the development of electricity from renewables — a move that could cost taxpayers an additional $1 billion over the next two years. Rhone Resch, who heads the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington DC, says the industry is ready to go to work once it can get the financing. "The policies and the programmes that worked in the past economy will not work in today's dire economic environment," he says. 

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  • #60743

    I think journalism is oversupplied. Print media has been seriously declining for years and, aside from a couple dozen famous bloggers, the industry is still attempting to learn how to monetize newsreporting now that technology has made old structures obsolete.

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