Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Budget Uncertainties

More than 4 months into the current fiscal year, the U.S. government still hasn't passed a budget. The administration has already released its budget request for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. This is not the first time we've seen such long delays in the funding of government programs -- including scientific research and development -- and it probably won't be the last. But these annual delays undermine the ability of federal agencies to engage in the long-term planning that could improve the overall efficiency of government.

After the elections in November, the lame-duck Congress passed only 2 of the 11 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running. So, while the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security were fully funded, all other federal programs were asked to continue operating at last year's budget levels through mid-February. The idea was to force the newly elected Congress to spend its first weeks debating the unfinished business of the outgoing Congress. But it didn't work, and in late January the incoming Congress was poised to extend last year's funding levels through the end of this year.

This was a particularly unpleasant prospect for science funding, since several federal agencies (including the National Science Foundation) had been promised significant budget increases this year as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative announced in the State of the Union address in 2006. Without an appropriations bill, this extra funding would simply disappear. Fortunately, last week Congress included a last-minute provision to restore the promised budget increases for several agencies that support scientific research.

A typical grant from the NSF to an individual researcher lasts for 3-5 years, so this effectively sets a minimum planning timescale for the agency. Long annual budget delays create serious inefficiencies in the system -- inflation erodes the value of last year's budget dollar, forcing program cuts to make up any gap, and budget increases that arrive late need to be spent on a shorter timescale. There must be a better way to fund science.

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