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US budget battle takes shape – extra

US President Barack Obama faces a tough battle over his proposed budget for 2012. The plan, unveiled yesterday, makes a US$66.8-billion request for federal science spending, a 6% increase over current funding levels that backs up Obama’s call for continued investment in research, innovation and education.

But with the United States running a $1.3-trillion deficit, that ambition is likely to be curtailed as Congress gets to work on trimming the President’s request – just as they are now doing with Obama’s 2011 budget, which is still pending approval.

In an extensive news analysis piece online today (and appearing in the next issue of the magazine), Nature explains what this means for key science funding agencies and research themes, including energy, biomedical science and space.

But the budget also draws battle-lines on many other science-related issues.

The administration is gearing up for a showdown over environmental issues, for example, centred primarily on the work of the Environmental Protection Agency. The president’s budget would cut the agency’s 2010 budget by 12.7% to $9 billion, mainly by slashing popular grant programs intended to help states improve water infrastructure.

The US House Appropriations Committee has targeted those same grant programs for a massive $2-billion reduction, comprising the bulk of a proposed 29% cut in the agency’s 2011 budget. And House Republicans have upped the ante in their efforts to prevent the EPA from moving forward with industrial greenhouse gas regulations, by proposing budgetary language that would prevent the EPA from spending any money on said regulations.

Another mainstay of environmental research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), held its ground in the proposed 2012 budget. NOAA would get an increase of $585 million over the 2010 enacted budget, bringing its total budget to $5.5 billion, nearly the same as the president’s 2011 pending proposal. Some $1.9 billion of the NOAA budget would go to weather and climate satellites.

Indeed, climate will be a key battleground for Obama’s budget request. At the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, Obama joined with other developed countries in committing to allocate a collective $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to help poor countries develop clean energy sources, fight deforestation and otherwise prepare for life in a warmer world. The president’s 2012 budget would allocate roughly $590 million in core financing for programmes run by the World Bank, in addition to other financial assistance through agencies like the State Department and USAID.

But House Republicans are taking aim at the contributions outlined in the 2011 budget. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental lobby group, says the Republicans’ 2011 budget would zero out at least $650 million in international climate finance. It would be “a very significant gutting of US international climate assistance, including our efforts to deal with deforestation,” Schmidt says. “We would go from being in the game to basically sitting on the sidelines.”

There was also bad news for physicists. The 2012 budget confirmed expectations that no further funds would go to the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, in Lead, South Dakota, which aimed to house research projects in particle physics, nuclear physics and astrophysics.

And drugmakers got a nasty surprise. The budget would reduce the period of market exclusivity for brand-name biological drugs to seven years, down from the twelve years mandated in last year’s health reform law, the Affordable Care Act. The White House says that the change would save the government $2.34 billion in drug bills over the next decade, because brand-name medicines would face competition from cheaper, generic competitors five years earlier.

The biotechnology industry reacted angrily. The change “would jeopardize continued biotechnological research and development that will help create new jobs here in the US,” says Jim Greenwood, the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Association in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, Obama’s 2010 budget outlines a 4% funding increase for education. Three new programs that would aim to better train science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) teachers, improve undergraduate instruction, and include more minorities in STEM subjects, would receive $20 million each. Some existing education programs would be cut to make way for budget increases in other areas. These are mostly projects that have run their course or whose objectives would be achieved in other areas, says Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation.

Reporting by Jeff Tollefson, Meredith Wadman and Gwyneth Zakaib.


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