The Lost Biologists

The NYTimes reports on the impending budget crunch at US science funding agencies. The last Congress only passed spending bills for the military and domestic security, leaving nine others at the same level as the previous year. If we take inflation into account, the stagnant budgets result in a decrease in funding of 3-4% for most federal science and engineering programs.

Congressional Democrats do not plant to update the unfinished spending bills, and will extend them in their current state through September. (To learn how to petition your congressional representatives to increase funding for the NIH go here.) The NYTimes article focuses on physical science funding, which is feeling the crunch especially hard. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California must all cut research projects if funding levels remain constant.

NASA expects $100 in budget cuts which may affect Mars exploration and astrophysics. Steinn has more on astronomy funding.

What I find particularly interesting is the graph that accompanies the article (shown below the fold). Over the past fifteen years, funding for biomedical research has increased much faster than that of engineering, physical science, math, and computer science. Twenty years ago, funding for biomedical research, engineering, and physical science were at approximately equal levels (~$5 billion per year). But today biomedical research receives over $20 billion per year, whereas engineering and physical science get less than $10 billion each. The recent drop in funding is much more exaggerated for biomedical research because it was preceded by such a drastic increase.

The majority of biological research in the United States is funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Engineering and the physical sciences receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense (DoD), NASA, Department of Energy (DoE), among other sources. But a lot of those agencies (NSF, NASA, and DoE) also fund biological research. The NSF is especially diverse, funding a lot of non-medical biological research — including ecological and evolutionary research and research on non-human model organisms. The NSF was expecting a $400 million increase in its 2007 budget (from the $5.7 billion budget in 2006), but it does not look like the needed boost will ever arrive.

I’m confused by the category “Biomedical” research in the accompanying graph. Does all biological research get lumped into the biomedical category? If so, this paints a fairly misleading picture because non-NIH funding in biology is dwarfed by that from the NIH (and the category should be named “Life Sciences” rather than Biomedical). If not, what are the current funding levels of all other biological research? As someone whose research sits on the divide between the NIH and NSF — almost too much molecular genetics for the NSF, but almost not biomedical enough for the NIH — I find the classifications of the funding groups interesting.

(Via Ontogeny.)