Scientists fear NIH budget will hit research

January 22, 1999

After half a decade of dwindling budgets the US research community celebrated a giant jump in funding last year. Congress and the White House agreed 15 per cent more for the National Institutes of Health (to $15.6 billion) and 7 per cent for the National Science Foundation (to $3.67 billion). The NIH and NSF are, respectively, the main grant-making bodies for the biomedical and physical sciences.

Not bad, says this year's president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, M. R. C. ("Marci") Greenwood. "The prediction five years ago that these budgets would be 25 per cent reduced by now has not come true, and we should feel good aboup that."

But winning annual budget battles is not enough, Greenwood says. It is an argument amply demonstrated by reports that the White House plans only a 0.3 per cent increase for the NIH this year. Scientists will have to go to their communities' grassroots to keep research spending a national priority, Greenwood says. Her mantra is: "If we want to continue to do science in the national interest, we had better be sure that there is a national interest in science."

In her presidential address to the AAAS, Greenwood - chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz and a biologist who specialises in the genetic causes of obesity - will argue for a "new concept" of scientists involved in school education.

She cites a resurgence in "creation science", where children are taught that the world was created by God. She cites, too, the high proportion of US schoolteachers lacking a science background. And she warns of the "looming problems of scientific illiteracy" when "so many issues we face as citizens have a strong scientific component".

Going to the grassroots, also known as making "Astroturf", has become a standard power play in the US. Lobby groups are expert at drumming up public support where it counts: in congressmen's home districts. "Grassroots politics has worked in other areas; I propose that the AAAS take it up," Greenwood says.

From 1993 to 1995, she was associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She is now one of 24 members of the National Science Board and a board member of Research! America, where the "435 Project" has begun to focus on the 435 congressional districts.

Research! America specialises in finding favourable polling data on science - that eight out of ten Americans want to see their state lead the way in medical research, for example. They use the polls to make their case that the public likes science. The group also has a nationwide network of contacts. A "435 alert" on an important committee vote in Washington can trigger a deluge of mail to congressmen's offices. The goal is a big increase in government spending on basic research.

The US is spending substantially less than 3 per cent of its gross domestic product on research, Greenwood says, less than Japan and only just ahead of Germany. The days when science for the national defence was an easy sell are over. While the picture for science funding is stable, there will be no joy over the forthcoming budget. "We'll go through another period in which scientists will have to make a concerted effort," Greenwood predicts. "I'll be right out there."

Tim Cornwell

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