Across the nation, innocent Americans braced for calamity while a handful of good guys struggled to stave off a rapidly approaching deadline for disaster. But then, as the clock ticked down toward catastrophe, a surprise rescue at nearly the last minute lifted the threat.

No, it's not a trailer for the latest doomsday flick at your local cineplex. It’s the latest news in the thrilling federal-budget saga for fiscal year 2007--the accounting period that began on 1 October 2006 and runs until 30 September 2007. And it’s the reason that researchers dependent on federal money, and especially those in the physical sciences, are heaving huge sighs of relief over a disaster narrowly averted.

On the evening of January 29, the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives announced a joint funding resolution that is likely to become law, although there probably will be some changes. The resolution contains large increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science of the Department of Energy (DOE). If it is enacted, widely anticipated major cuts and outright cancellations of research projects will not take place. The National Institutes of Health, which received a smaller percentage increase, will not have to impose some of the cuts in grant-renewal funding it had already planned.

But before Congress takes too much credit for being science’s savior, it’s worth remembering that Congress caused the crisis in the first place. It's also worth acknowledging that the rescue will do little to help many early career scientists.

A funding free-for-all

The crisis began because of the way the 109th Congress ended. After taking a break for the November election--in which the Republican Party lost control of both houses--the 109th Congress reconvened, still under Republican leadership, ostensibly to complete its unfinished work. In December, however, the 109th Congress left town for the last time, having passed two appropriations bills--for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security--but not the 9 other bills needed to fund the rest of the government for the 2007. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution (CR) that funded agencies until 15 February at the level of their last appropriation.

The Republican plan apparently was to force the new, Democratic-controlled 110th Congress to spend its first months wrangling over 2007 appropriations bills. The new leadership rejected that scenario, however, and decided instead to focus on the 2008 budget that the President will propose later this month and to extend the CR for the rest of the 2007 fiscal year. This was bad news because those aborted 2007 appropriations bills contained increases for physical science so large that researchers were uncorking champagne bottles in anticipation. When the 109th Congress adjourned, hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding suddenly vanished, to be replaced by the CR’s flat budgets, which actually translated into decreased purchasing power because of inflation and civil-service pay raises.

“We were so close!” moaned a well-informed Capitol watcher we’ll call Polly C. Wonk. “It's time to recork the champagne.” Scientific agencies suddenly faced a year of “budget purgatory,” according to Dave Moore, senior associate vice president for government relations at the American Association of Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. Attention was therefore riveted on the new CR that Congress would have to pass by 15 February. Observers agreed that Congress was likely to try hard to hold the line against budget increases and to provide extra funding only for a small number of high national priorities. Advocates for all sorts of interests quickly became embroiled in what Moore called “a free-for-all,” struggling to get their favorites onto that short list.

Scientific organizations and a number of members of Congress pressed the cause of increased scientific research funding as crucial to the nation’s competitiveness and wellbeing. Polly and other informed observers, however, agreed with Moore that, among the cacophony of competing interests, “veterans’ health care would have a first take at whatever money is available.” By and large, the hopes of science advocates were dim. Moore nonetheless did discern “signals from some folks on Capitol Hill” that scientific agencies might “be identified as a national priority.”

Reprieve

When the dust lifted, those signals proved accurate. Under the new budget resolution, NSF receives an increase of $335 million--almost 8%--in line with the amount proposed in President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which advocates doubling NSF’s budget in 10 years. NIST and DOE’s science office, both also slated to double by 2016 under the ACI, receive new funding of $50 million and $200 million respectively. NIH gets an increase of $619.5 million, which, although large in absolute dollars, is less than inflation and “not as much as most people had hoped,” Moore says.

Still, “in the current environment any increase is welcome. Given the current environment and competing interests, it’s important that Congress recognized that NIH is one of those national priorities,” Moore adds. Of special interest to early-career scientists: The new funding “looks to the future” by including $91 million aimed directly at first-time investigators, according to a statement by the office of Senator Tom Harkin, (D-IA) a member of the Senate Appropriations committee.

By the way, Congress watchers were right about veterans’ healthcare, which got the largest increase at $3.6 billion. Other programs that got increases include global AIDS funding, Pell grants for college students, forest fire protection, and additional intelligence analysts at the FBI.

Before the announcement, the outlook for science was dire. NSF spokesperson Dana Topousis, for example, told Next Wave that NSF planned to cope with a flat budget year by having each directorate prioritize “projects, so some new ones may not start or be delayed a year. ... Several big projects may not be funded immediately, including significant new research under the International Polar Year in 2007, the new research vessel conducting science in the Arctic, the new petascale computer, and several other large-ticket projects.” Now those projects should go forward.

At NIH, Director Elias Zerhouni appeared resolved to continue delivering on his commitment to improving the prospects of at least some early-career scientists, despite the continuing resolution. “Every institute and center is working to ensure that the success rates of new investigators are not disproportionately affected by flat budgets,” he had written in Science in November. Up to 200 postdocs a year would win the new 5-year Pathway to Independence grants, he noted, even under the CR. Other postdocs and graduate students would receive Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Awards, with “things continuing pretty much at the '06 level under the continuing resolution,” according to NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky. But for the thousands of postdocs employed on NIH PI grants, prospects under the CR looked much less certain as NIH announced plans to fund grant renewals below their original amounts, “generally up to 80% of the previously committed level,” according the NIH Web site--a move that would put intense pressure on principal investigators to economize.

As Moore notes, the small increase NIH received in the new joint resolution is not “going to be a solution to the problems that postdocs face.” But the new money may keep things from getting worse. The fact that Congress decided, in a year of intense partisan politics and even more intense budget pressure, to place science among the nation’s highest priorities is as close as postdocs are likely to get to a happy ending.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700014

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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