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Article from The Scientist
September 18, 2002

Dueling for dollars
US life scientists unite for visibility as presidential panel touts physical science | By Peg Brickley

A funding increase for the physical sciences proposed by a key White House advisory panel has touched off a furor among non-medical life science groups, who say they are already being ignored by the National Science Foundation. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is expected to send a letter this week to President George W. Bush asking him to double the federal dollars going to research in physical sciences and engineering in the 2004 budget.

That letter topped the agenda Tuesday at the first meeting of the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC), a newly formed association of groups representing life-science disciplines mainly funded by the NSF, rather than the National Institutes of Health. Officials from member groups including the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) gathered at ESA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"A bunch of us who represent various scientific societies have been talking for a while about what has been happening to the term 'life sciences' during the push for more funding for the physical sciences and the call for a more balanced research portfolio," said Nadine Lymn, ESA's public affairs director. "Life science includes more than just medical biology, but that distinction is not being made, so the non-medical parts of biology stand to lose. We are becoming invisible."

BESC coalesced over the past several months, as member groups lobbied for their share of new federal research dollars. NSF, a key government funding conduit for non-medical life sciences, expects its research budget to double over the next five years, from $4.8 billion in fiscal year 2002 to $9.8 billion in 2005.

PCAST's draft letter to President Bush, released for comment in August, spurred BESC members to join forces formally, since the presidential advisory group created in September, 2001 is expected to have broad influence in government science spending. "We had a lot of problems with the letter, particularly with their blatant disregard for the life sciences, bio-sciences and biology," said Adrienne Froelich, public policy director for AIBS.

The chair of the PCAST panel that drafted the Bush letter is "sympathetic" to the complaints of the non-medical life scientists. "Unfortunately, when you're trying to deal with these issues at 50,000 feet, a lot of the terminology gets too generic," said Gerald W. Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in an interview with The Scientist.

PCAST's plea for more money for physical sciences and engineering was based on a commissioned study by the Rand think tank, which found that federal funding in those areas languished from 1993 to 2000, while the NIH budget boomed. "Engineering, etc., has stayed very flat over the last three decades, while life sciences have quadrupled in research funding," explained Kei Koizumi, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's R&D Budget and Policy Program, and an author of the Rand report. AAAS takes no position on funding levels, he said.

Other science leaders worry that the PCAST position will promote divisions in the sciences rather than redress imbalances.

"I certainly believe that the physical sciences and engineering should have increased funding. What bothers me about the (PCAST) letter is what I consider the tone of the letter, which I believe is going to make part of the scientific community upset," said Samuel Rankin, chairman of the Coalition for National Science Funding, an association of 80 scientific, engineering, and professional societies, universities, and corporations.

"PCAST talks about upgrading the funding to balance the R&D portfolio, and certainly that's something that all of us have been talking about," Rankin added. "But this seems to be a very simplistic approach to the issue of balance. I don't think we should be pitting one science against another."

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