Science Funding And The Budget

What are President Obama's spending priorities when it comes to science and technology? White House Science Advisor John Holdren discusses the President's proposed 2012 budget. Plus, Congressman Rush Holt on Congress's plans to cut science spending from this year's budget.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, science spending in a time of budget cuts. Earlier this week, President Obama unveiled his 2012 proposed budget, and in an era of belt-tightening, funding for science seemed do to pretty well, at least for now. And we'll see what Congress has to say about it.

And here to say what he thinks about it is Dr. John Holdren. He is the assistant to the president for science and technology and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, otherwise known as the president's science adviser.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Holdren.

Dr. JOHN HOLDREN (President's Science Adviser): Well, thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

FLATOW: How is it been, it's been like two years now that you've been science adviser?

Dr. HOLDREN: It has.

FLATOW: And what kind of - how would you describe that experience?

Dr. HOLDREN: It's exhilarating. It is exciting to have the opportunity to help the president make some progress on the many parts of his agenda that depend on science and technology and innovation. It's also occasionally frustrating, as you might imagine, when we somehow don't get as much done as we'd like.

FLATOW: Hmm. And this president has talked more to the public, done more things about science in the public than any president that I can remember.

Dr. HOLDREN: He has. He has talked more about science, technology and innovation. He's developed more innovations. He's presented stronger budgets. He's asked more of his council of advisers on science and technology. He's had more events around science, technology and science and math education for kids, which is one of his priorities.

FLATOW: How much of these things are going to survive? How bad do you foresee the budget cuts in the 2012 budget relating to science?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, I think it's very hard to say. The president's 2012 budget is very kind to science and technology when you consider the overall fiscal constraint under which we're operating. His 2012 budget proposal is flat with the appropriated amount in 2010 in total, but science and technology R and D are up.

And the reason is the president recognizes that if we are going to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the competition, we've got to make these investments in science and technology.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you find it frustrating that so many Americans don't believe in some of the basic tenets of science? Is it frustrating to hear those things?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, you know, I like to think of the glass as half full as well as half empty. And the fact is that a strong majority of Americans believe in many of the key conclusions from science and technology that we need their support for in passing these kinds of budgets.

I mean, people understand that science and technology have been major contributors to our economic progress. Polls show that very clearly, that the public understands that, that their quality of life has been vastly improved by advances in science and technology.

I think most people understand that a very large fraction of the economic growth of the last 50 years has been driven by innovation based in science and engineering. So, yeah, there are issues where I wish we had a greater degree of unanimity in the public and, for that matter, in the Congress.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HOLDREN: But we're getting there.

FLATOW: And speaking of the Congress, there's - as we speak, there's a debate on Capitol Hill about a continuing revolution - revolution, that's a good name - resolution that needs to get approved by March 4th, and there are lots of cuts to science in that bill. I mean, how can the president be asking for an increase to the budgets of some agencies in the new budget, which some folks in Congress are trying to take back from the present 2011 budget?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that is, you know, one of the current frustrations that some in the Congress seem to think the drastic cuts across the board are not with a scalpel but with a meat axe will be helpful to country. I don't think that's correct. The president doesn't think it's correct, and it's not at all clear where the Congress as a whole will really end up.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HOLDREN: Right now, it's the House that's talking about these cuts. How many of them the House passes remains to be seen, but then there's the Senate. And ultimately, bills don't become law unless the president signs them. So there are a good many steps still coming before we know what the spending is going to be for the fiscal year that we're now in, fiscal year 2011.

It is a frustration not to have, at this point, an actual budget for 2011. So we're trying to build the 2012 budget without knowing what 2011 is really going to be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What - we have some questions that are coming in. People would like to know what are - from Eric Krause(ph) writes: What are the three most interesting science projects that you U.S. American scientists are up to now?

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that's a wonderful question. I suppose the reason it's difficult is that one could list so many more than three. I continue to be excited by the imagery that we're receiving from the Hubble Space Telescope and the other orbiting telescopes we have, which have been in the process of looking further and further back in time, looking deeper into the universe, but also discovering new evidence of Earth-like planets.

The discovery that there are lots of stars out there that have planets, that some fraction of them have planets that are in the right size range and the right distance from their stars to make it conceivable that they could support life. This is absolutely fascinating stuff.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HOLDREN: The work that's going on in synthetic biology, in extension of work that's been going on for a long time in genetic engineering, has enormous potential for discoveries and capabilities that will improve our ability to cure disease.

FLATOW: We're going to have to keep it there too until we come back from the break, all right?

Dr. HOLDREN: Sure.

FLATOW: Everybody stay where you are. We'll come back and talk more with Dr. John Holdren after this break. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. What would you like to ask?

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with John Holdren, the president's science adviser. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Sorry, my head is not working well today. And if you'd like to tweet us, our tweet is @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And let's see if we can go to - we have actually a question that came in by the phone. And here's that question now.

CHANNING(ph) (Caller): Hi. This is Channing from West Des Moines, Iowa. My questions for John Holdren are: What authors do you currently find authoritative on the question of climate change in the United States? And when you're away from home, your day is done and you are with your family, which economic impact of climate change do you talk to your family about first? Thanks very much.

FLATOW: Thank you for that call.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that is an interesting question. You know, there are individual climate scientists who are doing fabulous work. I think of Jim Hansen from NASA. I still read the work of the late Steve Schneider. I'm actually here in Washington speaking today at the annual meeting of the AAAS, and we just had a memorial session, a tribute to Steve Schneider talking about the many contributions that he made understanding climate change.

But I also rely very heavily on the reports of the National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which continue to update their work and do it in a way that provides rather convenient access to the latest peer-reviewed findings.

In terms of the kinds of discussions of impacts of climate change that occur over my family dinner table, I think the ones we talk about the most these days are the increasing frequency of extreme events in weather around the world, many of which are correlated with climate change in the sense that they're occurring in patterns that have long been predicted by analyses and models of climate.

So we're seeing increases in the incidents of wildfires, of heat waves, of extremely powerful storms, of flooding events that are all occurring in the patterns that one would predict if one we're looking for impacts of a world that is heating up overall.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Jeff(ph) in South Dakota on the phone. Hi, Jeff. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JEFF (Caller): Thank you. Tons of questions but one pops out is what can you say about these thorium-based nuclear reactors? I've heard - I've read good things about them, but no one wants to get it off the ground.

FLATOW: What are the features of - what is the future of nuclear reactors?

Dr. HOLDREN: I think there are a lot of interesting concepts in the nuclear reactor domain that are still being explored. The thorium-fueled ideas have been looked at from really many decades. For 50 years, people have been interested in thorium-fueled nuclear reactors, but there are some very substantial technical challenges in the way of making the thorium cycle really attractive. And nobody has up until now really demonstrated that those challenges can be overcome in a way that would make thorium reactors economically competitive.

I think a more interesting idea, which is reflected with a modest amount of money in the president's 2012 budget proposal, are the small modular nuclear reactors which could be manufactured in, basically, assembly-line way, would have the potential for getting the cost down, are potentially economically attractive in much smaller sizes than the nuclear reactors we've been relying on. That makes them applicable in a wider variety of places. And they could be basically switched out and returned whole to the manufacturers so there wouldn't be any spent fuel that could be used for nuclear bomb making left behind after the reactor has lived out its useful life.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Here's a question that came in - a tweet - Twitter from an NIH-funded scientist who says: What does Dr. Holdren think about a law that would require products from the U.S. patented tech to be made in the U.S. for five to 10 years and flexible to allow for adjustments? Flat-screens, TVs invented here, not ever made in the U.S. What - we can make new jobs from our innovations but the current circumstances call for some measure of protectionism.

Can we make sure that, you know, he's asking is there a way to protect new ideas in this country and put some sort of, you know, licensing agreement on that that they have to be made here first.

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, that is a very challenging domain that the questioner is getting us into there. It is true that many inventions that occurred in the United States have been exploited commercially in other countries first, or exploited commercially in other countries more economically than we were able to do. And that has led, obviously, to problems in our balance of trade and problems in our manufacturing job sector.

We'd love to fix those. I think the way to fix them is getting better at translating our inventions into commercial products in the United States, getting better at all the steps in innovation that is not just invention, but overcoming the barriers to getting things into the marketplace. We're working very hard on that. We are working on it, among other things, in the energy domain, where we had initially three new energy innovation hubs. And now, going forward, we're going to have six, which are places where universities, national laboratories and private companies get together to bring all of their skills to bear on the innovation process and get things more quickly from the lab into the marketplace.

I don't think we can do it with restrictive trade legislation, which would run into all kinds of problems with our membership in the World Trade Organization and would lead to reciprocal forms of discrimination by other countries, which would not be to our advantage.

FLATOW: I'm going to give you the - in the minute that we have remaining, the blank-check question I give a lot of my guests, who are mostly scientists. And I say: If you had a blank check - and I guess this is a government blank check - you could spend as much money anywhere, where you would focus it?

Dr. HOLDREN: Gee, for somebody who's just been immersed in the problems of parsing the science and technology budget for 2012, that's really too hard. There's no one place where I would put it. But, certainly, high on my list at this point would be our Earth observation capabilities and network. We have satellites that are past their life expectancy that we rely on for critical information about weather forecasting, about monitoring climate change, about other things happening on the surface of the Earth. We need those data. We need to be investing more in our Earth observation capabilities to understand what's happening on the planet and how we can best cope with it. That would probably be my first choice at the moment.

But, again, we've just been struggling to produce a very balanced 2012 budget for science and technology, and I think we've done it. So I would invite folks to come to the White House website or the OSTP website, www.ostp.gov, and have a look at what we came up with in this 2012 budget. I think it's pretty good.

FLATOW: And one final question for you. In the 2011 budget, there's an amendment in the legislation that needs to be reapproved, to cut money from your office, $500,000. Will that have an impact on your operations? Will it...

Dr. HOLDREN: Well, of course, if that happened, it would have an impact. You know, nobody's enthusiastic about large cuts to their budget. And so naturally, I hope that one won't happen. We have a big portfolio. We have a lot of work to do for the administration and for the taxpayer, for that matter, in making sure that when we spend our tax dollars in science and technology, they're spent in the most effective ways. And the budget for the office isn't very large overall. I would prefer that it not be cut back.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Holdren, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy day to talk to us. I hope you'll come back.

Dr. HOLDREN: Oh, I will. Thank you. I enjoyed it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. John Holdren, who is the president's science advisor.

But we're saying goodbye to Dr. Holdren, but we're going to continue to talk about science spending because, while President Obama giveth, Congress is trying to take it away from this year's budget, the 2011 spending. And the House of Representative is debating HR 1, which we were talking about a bit. It's a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past March 4th, when the current resolution expires. And a lot of deep cuts in the air and - to EPA, NASA and National Science Foundation.

Joining me now is Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat representing New Jersey's 12th District.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): Ira, it's good to be with you, always.

FLATOW: Where do we stand with that resolution?

Rep. HOLT: Well, this has been debated almost round-the-clock for several days now. The authors of this legislation are the new majority, including a lot of people who were just elected in November, who campaigned against all spending, essentially. And, you know, they want to cut everything. As you said, John Holdren's (unintelligible). And I'm sorry I was on the floor voting, so I didn't get to hear what John had to say. But there's nobody who's better informed and more thoughtful than John Holdren.

But the authors of this appropriations bill would cut deeply in just about every part of the government, except defense and veterans, all the discretionary spending. So it would be billions of dollars of cut - in midyear, mind you - in basic science agencies, such as NSS and NIST and NOAH and NIH. And we just had a vote moments ago that would deny any funding for enforcement of - EPA's enforcement on - of chemical emissions under the Clean Air Act.

So this is a sweeping, sweeping bill that would cut very deeply all across the government. I should hasten to say, it's not going to become law. And the Senate still has to act. And the president has said if something like this comes to him, he would veto it. But it will certainly set a stake in the ground toward deep cuts. And whatever comes out of this three-way tug of war will be skewed toward cuts. And although they probably won't be as severe as what's in this bill before the House right now, I think it will be painful. And I think it will not be good for research and development, for education, for environmental protection and so forth.

FLATOW: So this is sort of putting a line in the sand about where, you know -we still want to take money back from 2011, even before we address the president's 2012 budget.

Rep. HOLT: That's right. That's right. What's before the House right now is the appropriations bill that was supposed to be completed by the end of September last fall. It was just extended on a stop-gap version to keep things at an even keel, on the same level of funding. And now the new majority in the House says that should be cut drastically, and they don't want to wait for next year to make those cuts. They want to do them now. I think what's really behind it is a fundamental argument about whether there is such a thing as investment.

They are saying cut, you know, any dollar cut is as good as any other dollar cut. And maybe I'm, you know, exaggerating a little bit, but that's pretty much their attitude. The president, in his budget that he has proposed for next year, has said, you know, I propose cutting a lot of different places, but not in things that make jobs and provide innovation and economic growth in the future. So that's why he said, I'm going to kind of protect education, science research, things that help businesses innovate, and that sort of thing.

FLATOW: Okay. Let me just remind everybody that this SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, talking with Congressman Rush Holt, from the floor of the House, there. I'm looking at some of these figures that they want to cut. They want to cut $4 billion from the Department of Energy Office of Science, $130 million from the National Science...

Rep. HOLT: That's just under a billion from the Office of Science in the Department of Energy, but that would mean thousands of jobs this year.

FLATOW: Cut $360 million from the NSF budget?

Rep. HOLT: Yes, that's right. And that would mean losses of research contracts for a lot of people. Now, many of those contracts are already let for this year. So for user facilities - telescopes and things like that - it might mean a bigger cut.

How the agencies would actually carry out these cuts would vary from agency to agency, but it would be - there would be blood on the floor. This would be huge cuts in virtually every part of the government, and especially in the science research areas.

FLATOW: What happens if nothing gets passed by March deadline?

Rep. HOLT: Well, you may recall there has been past, not distant history, been government shutdowns. And the president, you know, doesn't want to - I think he's been pretty careful not to engage in threats, but this on a course that could lead to that. You know, the new membership of the House of Representatives, they are ideologically, you know, very determined people. They feel that they are on a mission that they were sent here for big changes in government. And they haven't shown any inclination to back down. And $100 billion cut in midyear that they are insisting on, they don't show much eagerness to - willingness to back down from that. And that puts their speaker - who probably is a little more pragmatic than that - in a very difficult position.

And meanwhile, you know, what I'm trying to do is argue for investments, to try to get people to make a distinction between wasteful spending and programs that actually, you know, not just improve quality of life, but actually add to economic growth and create jobs. And, you know, on the first day of this Congress, I introduced bills that would make the R&D tax credit permanent and would give investors rewards for investing in companies that have a large research component.

I mean, yes, those are government programs and, yes, that is his, you know, revenues, taxpayer revenues. But these are the kinds of things that we've seen, over past decades, add to not just - well, to the economic vitality of the country.

FLATOW: Congressman Holt, we've run out of time. I would like to thank you for...

Rep. HOLT: Sorry to be so late joining you, but it's great to be with you, always.

FLATOW: Well, it's not every time we get - every day we get a call from the Cloakroom on the House floor there. SO thank you very much for taking time from your busy day.

Congressman Rush Holt, the Democratic representing - Democratic representative of New Jersey's 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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