Originally published in Science by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
U.S. academic lobbyists have long urged the Department of Defense (DOD) to boost its investment in science and technology (S&T) to enhance the nation’s strategic and economic competitiveness. But although the agency’s overall S&T portfolio has grown modestly since 2002, funding for basic research has stagnated. Now, in an unprecedented step, the Pentagon’s research boss is seeking an 11% increase in DOD’s S&T budget for the next fiscal year. Observers say the request, which Pentagon officials appear eager to publicize, improves the long-term prospects for more defense-related research despite the continued cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proposal comes from John Young, director of Defense Research and Engineering (DRE). In a 24 August memo to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which recently became public, Young warns that the agency’s S&T investment "may be inadequate to meet the imposing security threats that challenge the nation." Citing the modernization of China’s military, the decline in basic research by corporations, and the increasing sophistication of terrorist organizations, Young proposes establishing new S&T initiatives worth $1.2 billion in the 2009 fiscal year (FY). Congress has yet to complete action on this year’s request for $10.8 billion for the program.
Supporters point to the fact that the memo was requested by Gates, a member of a National Academies panel that in 2005 called for a 10% increase in basic defense research spending (Science, 21 October 2005, p. 423). Adds Alan Shaffer, one of Young’s senior executives: "We’re not getting the same type of pushback we used to get. Yes, there are a lot of claimants for dollars. But there’s a groundswell of support for the idea."
Nonetheless, everybody admits that the proposed increase faces a big hurdle. "The commitments the department has made extend far beyond available resources," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. For example, he says, the Air Force urgently needs 321 F-21 fighter aircraft, but "there’s not enough money in the 2009 proposed budget to purchase even half " that number. "What the services want right now is hardware, not science," he says.
A congressional staffer agrees that a big research boost next year is unlikely. "Just because Mr. Gates asked for the proposal and Mr. Young produced it does not make it a slam dunk," he says. But he believes that the plan prepares the ground for bigger increases down the road. Lobbyists also note that Young is awaiting congressional approval to become the agency’s under secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, which would give him oversight of a $157 billion budget that includes DRE.
Science 2 November 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5851, p. 730