Federal funding for major science agencies is at a 25-year low

Federal funding for major science agencies is at a 25-year low

Government funding for science is usually immune from political gridlock and polarization in Congress. But, federal funding for science is slated to drop for 2025.

Science research dollars are considered to be discretionary, which means the funding has to be approved by Congress every year. But it’s in a budget category with larger entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security that are generally considered untouchable by politicians of both parties.

Federal investment in scientific research encompasses everything from large telescopes supported by the National Science Foundation to NASA satellites studying climate change, programs studying the use and governance of artificial intelligence at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and research on Alzheimer’s disease funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Studies show that increasing federal research spending benefits productivity and economic competitiveness.

I’m an astronomer and also a senior university administrator. As an administrator, I’ve been involved in lobbying for research funding as associate dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona, and in encouraging government investment in astronomy as a vice president of the American Astronomical Society. I’ve seen the importance of this kind of funding as a researcher who has had federal grants for 30 years, and as a senior academic who helps my colleagues write grants to support their valuable work.

Bipartisan support

Federal funding for many programs is characterized by political polarization, meaning that partisanship and ideological divisions between the two main political parties can lead to gridlock. Science is usually a rare exception to this problem.

The public shows strong bipartisan support for federal investment in scientific research, and Congress has generally followed suit, passing bills in 2024 with bipartisan backing in April and June.

The House passed these bills, and after reconciliation with language from the Senate, they resulted in final bills to direct US$460 billion in government spending.

However, policy documents produced by Congress reveal a partisan split in how Democratic and Republican lawmakers reference scientific research.

Congressional committees for both sides are citing more scientific papers, but there is only a 5% overlap in the papers they cite. That means that the two parties are using different evidence to make their funding decisions, rather than working from a scientific consensus. Committees under Democratic control were almost twice as likely to cite technical papers as panels led by Republicans, and they were more likely to cite papers that other scientists considered important.

Ideally, all the best ideas for scientific research would receive federal funds. But limited support for scientific research in the United States means that for individual scientists, getting funding is a highly competitive process.

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