16 February 2011

Federal Science and OSTP Patterns

There is a disturbing pattern emerging from the US President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  This is the principal group with access to the President's ear when it comes to such important issues as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in both education and practice.  Along with the numerous federal agencies that support basic and applied research across the country, the OSTP helps decide the priorities in research and application of science funding throughout the federal government.  Although I'll grant that it's just two instances thus far, they are very specific, and still indicative of more systematic problems in federal support for science in our country.

On 24 January of this year, the Associated Press reported:
"President Barack Obama's top adviser on energy and climate matters is stepping down, two White House officials confirmed Monday. The departure of Carol Browner underscores that there will be no major White House push on climate change, given that such efforts have little chance of succeeding on Capitol Hill."
Much more was made of the issue, especially the expected stiff opposition from incoming Congressional Republicans toward much of the President's agenda on climate and energy issues. But shouldn't that just embolden the fighters on the side of the President and Congressional Democrats, if the Republicans insist on making public health a political issue? I would have thought so, but then...

The next day, 25 January, the President delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. The text was leaked by a few outlets several hours prior to the address, and I was able to give it a quick read (note: I did indeed check the leaked text against the speech in real-time, and it was accurate). My results, as tweeted: "lots of change, support for infrastructure, four mentions of water, zero climate." OK, so maybe I understated the support for infrastructure, but the number of times water was mentioned is overstated, since two of those were in direct relation to the freshwater/saltwater salmon issue and thus basically a joke afterward.  But is it not interesting that, in the time leading up to the President's address during which issues for the speech were being argued and debated in the White House, one of the overarching issues of our time and this President's administration, "climate" would be removed entirely from the speech?

Those from Greenwire and the New York Times saw Ms. Browner's departure as
"...a sign of a sea change in President Obama's approach to energy issues, experts say, marking a shift from advancing new climate and energy programs to defending the economic value of the policies that his administration has put in place over its first two years." 
That was still before the State of the Union address confirmed only part of their supposition.  There was definitely a shift in the works, with no mention of the President's energy and climate bill that had just died an agonizing death in the lame-duck session of the previous Congress, no commitment to introduce new legislation in that regard, just a quiet backing down and diversion to other topics, specifically "innovation."  It is widely accepted that Ms. Browner saw the writing on the wall (and in the speech) and knew that her job was suddenly superfluous...

So, forward a couple of weeks to the federal budget debates, in which we are presently embroiled.  Or, rather, we would be, if there was a fight to witness...but there really isn't this time around.  The President's agenda and aims, even from this more recent State of Union address, suffer death by so many little cuts.  It should not be the President's goal to guess at the middle ground in an anticipated debate with appropriators in Congress and then jump right to it, because those feisty Republicans in the House of Representatives will just take that offered budget and have their way with it anyway, so why not start from a stronger position and find a better middle ground? But instead of a fight, there is just a sad recognition of the state of science in our national priorities, despite the President's best intentions.

Even before the White House submitted its FY2012 budget request to Congress, those in the House had already proposed to gut the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and cut (still further) funding to NASA, our premier national agency for both scientific and popular "innovation."  NASA remains mired in some recent legislative and political wrangling over Constellation, the successor program to the space shuttle, even as manned space flight (other than the ongoing International Space Station) is becoming less a realistic and necessary priority for the agency.  In a hearing on funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) it was even noted that there had been "abuse of the agency’s refreshment purchases at official conferences to the tune of $500,000 during 2008 and 2009, suggesting that it could be a place to cut costs."  Never mind Congress' own recent decision last September with the NASA "Authorization Act’s provision to fly an additional space shuttle flight before the fleet retires, at a cost of $500 million."  Sometimes I can only shake my head at the incongruity of it all, but sometimes there's a good reason to speak up too...

To wit, on Monday this week (14 February) the White House released the President's own federal budget request for FY2012 with many promised funding cuts, through not all in the areas that might do the most good.  Let us remember that FY2011 was a wash, that the President's budget proposal for the current funding year (ending in September) was defeated in Congress and left funding for federal programs and agencies in a stop-gap measure called "Continuing Resolution" (CR). Continuing, because it just takes the previous year's (final, approved) budget and copies it over to the current year; resolution because the people who thought that was a good idea were forward thinking in the face of others too irresolute to make a compromise or decision for themselves.  It is in the midst of such a CR period that we get special spending measures running rampant through Congress with little thought as to the historical or future implications, such as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which has left NASA in that quandary over being forced to spend budgeted money on the Constellation program after that was canceled, and forced to spend money (from where, no-one yet knows) on yet one more space shuttle mission after NASA had already declared the end of that program.  Despite some huge accomplishments in mission extension beyond planned lifetimes, those are more the exception than the normative function, and NASA knows painfully well the results of program fatigue.

So what we see now is flat or declining spending on ostensibly growing programs, or some that need to grow but cannot because the old budget is set into CR mode while priorities have changed, drastically in many cases.  The new budget requests for FY2012 come out and look a shock to the system, a sharp turn in priorities.  And yet, at the same time he proposed to freeze all non-security spending for several years (effectively, a partial-CR mode for much of the government) the President called for American innovation in order to "Win the Future" in his address to Congress.  From where, Mr. President, should that innovation come if not the very science-based agencies that your new budget provides only minimal advances in funding support?  The mathematics of how much funding we might see is pretty wonky, to say the least, but the major American science agencies stand to see little improvement.  Here I present a sampling of impacts, limited primarily to agencies operating in the Earth Sciences:

EPA: one of the hardest-hit agencies in Congressional deliberation before the White House request, the President's budget proposal was of little help.  From Greenwire and the New York Times, on 14 February:
"U.S. EPA would take a 12.6 percent funding cut under President Obama's budget request for fiscal 2012, which would shrink the amount of grants for state and local water projects while keeping money flowing toward enforcement and the new air pollution regulations that House Republicans are trying to starve of funding."
The compromise position would suggest that both sides win by cutting all of these programs at once, which results in a huge loss for citizens and public health.  Of particular interest to me, here, are the President's own budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and a great deal of water infrastructure funding, albeit most contained in earmarks by legislators.  Almost $1B would be cut from two revolving fund programs that provide money to states for their water investment activities.  Not only will the Federal government stop spending so darn much on ensuring the provision of clean water for ecological and municipal use, but they're going to keep the states from doing it themselves too.  The EPA will be hobbled, a shell of its former self.

NASA: the country's premiere space science agency is suffering under mixed mandates and directives, with uncertain funding sources and visions for the future.  Just a little of what I mean here is mentioned above.  More is buried in the agency's own budget projections, with minimal spending on critical Earth Science missions and educational efforts.  Though NASA Administrator Bolden tried to put a positive spin on federal developments in his response to the President's State of the Union address, it is clear to me even on the outside of that bureaucracy now that the agency is in something of a state of shock.  While space and planetary missions continue to produce fantastic insights and discoveries, not one budget line in Earth Sciences looks adequate for a mission development or launch in the next five years, by which time every one of NASA's existing down-looking satellite fleet will be beyond its operational life-span.  That so many existing missions have outlived their design life is quite an engineering accomplishment, but such luck should not make for policy decisions such as programmatic underfunding on the scale of $1B or more.  And by the way, Administrator Bolden, presentation of your response statement as a "blog post" does little to support your position, especially when you've disallowed comments on your so-called-blog! Who are you more afraid of, the irrelevant cranks, or those of us with enough education and understanding to make a legitimate criticism of your agency-cum-bureaucracy?

NOAA: the country's premiere atmosphere and ocean science agency (it's right there in their name) falls under the domain of the Department of Commerce, which stands to see overall budget cuts in the neighborhood of 11-16% depending on which version of the budget (White House and Congressional, respectively) wins out.  Because the country's vital weather forecasting and observation services require operation and maintenance, there is nothing to suggest that NOAA's diverse operations and research portfolio might suffer disproportionately from such funding cuts, given the remainder of the DOC that is covered by that Congressional proposal.  NOAA's specific request for FY2012 is barely 2% less than the budget provided by CR, and yet NOAA co-operates extensively in research programs and satellite systems with NASA, so those are areas that I would expect to see suffering from flat funding profiles.  Never mind that all we know about our weather, including day-to-day predictions and it's relation to so many other Earth systems, including the oceans, comes through NOAA.  Never mind that predictions of El Niño and La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, and what they mean for drought conditions and water resources forecasting in the US, all come from NOAA research and modeling.  Never mind that weather has the largest and most under-valued, under-appreciated impact on human society of any of the daily-to-annual-to-lifetime factors that we might consider...  The widely-reported "water-energy nexus" that has everyone's attention these days? Not only is the basic description incomplete, but the trade-offs contained implicitly in that "nexus" are driven by weather!  As Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under-secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA's Administrator, and arguably one of the most capable leaders in the federal government today, put it following the budget announcement:
"Perhaps most significantly, this budget clearly recognizes the central role that science and technology play in stimulating the economy, creating new jobs and improving the health and security of Americans... Americans rely on NOAA science, services and stewardship to keep their families safe, their communities thriving, and their businesses strong. Our work is everyone’s business."
It was really too bad that NASA's administrator did not take the time to make such a well-crafted, self-supporting statement as Dr. Lubchenco.  He might have helped secure NASA's participation in what is left of America's future in technological innovation and readiness for the future climate of competition, both environmentally and economically.

USGS: the country's premiere land-surface science agency stands to see marginal gains, primarily in land observation programs (e.g. satellite projects) and ecological studies and restoration efforts.  A new network of Climate Centers established by the Department of Interior, to work with and complement the regional meteorology-oriented River Forecast Centers operated by NOAA's National Weather Service, will see a boost of only $11M.  The Landsat Data Continuity Mission, a cooperative program with NASA and other agencies for which the first new-generation satellite is still scheduled to launch in December 2012, may see a boost in funding of as much as $48M under the proposed budget.

NSF: finally, some good news did appear on 14 February:
"The National Science Foundation (NSF) today presented the President's $7.767 billion budget request for NSF for fiscal year 2012.  NSF Director Subra Suresh said the request is 'designed to maintain the agency's position as the nation's engine of innovation in science, engineering and science education.'
"The request represents an increase of $894.5 million, or 13 percent, over NSF's current operating level. The President's 2012 budget targets scarce federal resources to the areas critical to winning the future: education, innovation, clean energy and infrastructure.
"Suresh said the budget request meets the three major goals of NSF's strategic plan: to transform the frontiers of research and education, to innovate for society by linking fundamental research to national challenges and to perform as a model organization within the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of modern science and engineering."
The NSF's diverse investments in academic research, its sole purpose for being, account for more than 20% of all federal funding of pure and applied research at institutes of higher education in the US. The NSF is one of the focal points of federal STEM education efforts, though not the only one.  The Department of Education, with support for primary education, needs even greater support in these areas.  Innovation doesn't start at the college or graduate level, but rather deep in the halls of the elementary schools where kids are just beginning to form opinions on science and math at subconscious levels.  If investments are not made there, and quickly, the innovators of our next generation of Americans won't even arrive in a college program where NSF funding could do them any good.  They need good support, stronger curricular programs in science and math, and great role models in their teachers and the larger community of educated leaders.

So this leads me to suggest the second instance in that pattern I mentioned above.  The White House released its omnibus federal budget request on the morning of 14 February, followed throughout the day by individual agencies releasing and commenting on their own portions of the budget in more detail.  On the same day James Kohlenberger, the chief of staff for the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned!  Maybe it was like Ms. Browner's situation: for her, there was no more climate policy to manage, so her job went the way of the dodo...  Now, as federal science policy altogether is sacrificed by the White House on the altar of expected stiff Congressional opposition, so goes his own job too.

Should the members of the President's OSTP have remained resolute in their fight for what they saw could be done with science in our country, the situation of the present budget setbacks might not look so dire.  Instead, we have seen these two high-profile figures in federal science (and numerous other actors in the White House, mind you) give up and leave, with no apparent plans for their futures outside the White House circles of power.  Can we as Americans really afford the decimation of regulatory authority at the EPA, among all the other setbacks in federal science at NASA and NOAA and USGS, not to mention flat spending on academic and non-commercial science and education through NSF?  No, not now, and not in the long run toward true innovation that could possibly "win the future."  The only way to get there may be to "win" such a future by lottery, because these policies suggest that we certainly aren't going to earn it with investment, hard work and good ol' American ingenuity.

The President saw it coming when the new Republican-dominated Congress was elected, and had the chance to counter the expected funding cuts to some of the most important programs for our nation's future.  But now we see a larger part of the truth, and it is obvious that the White House is hardly putting up a fight...

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