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Defense Last In WH Science Goals

The Obama administration's guidance for the 2011 science budget makes clear that basic research spending will stay flat in most areas or decline, including at the Pentagon.

Money will first go to research that can "drive economic recovery, job creation, and economic growth," says the guidance issued in an Aug. 4 memo by White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag. The administration also makes clear that since they expect little new money for science and technology funding then government agencies must move dollars to what it calls four "practical challenges."

Defense is listed last among the challenges set by the administration. In order, OMB wants agencies to move money to research: o Applying science and technology strategies to drive economic recovery, job creation, and economic growth; o Promoting innovative energy technologies to reduce dependence on energy imports and mitigate the impact of climate-change while creating green jobs and new businesses; o Applying biomedical science and information technology to help Americans live longer, healthier lives while reducing health care costs; and o Assuring we have the technologies needed to protect our troops, citizens, and national interests, including those needed to verify arms control and nonproliferation agreements essential to our security.

Republicans will certainly point to the administration's emphasis on verifying arms control agreements as proof that the administration's priorities are skewed. But it also highlights the short-term focus of these goals, as opposed to a long-term focus on fundamental and new research.

In addition to listing defense priorities last of the four, the memo makes very clear that agencies will have to increase the "productivity of our research institutions. For those who have worked in them or know their work, research institutions are by nature not terribly productive. After all, true cutting edge research often leads down blind alleys. Taking those risks is what defines what in the Pentagon budget pays for 6.1 budget line items.

Among efforts of interest to the national security community, cyber and space research receive the most support in the memo. The memo says that achieving the broad goals listed above will require: "improving and protecting our information, communication, and transportation infrastructure, which is essential to our commerce, science, and security alike; and enhancing our capabilities in space, which are essential for communications, geopositioning, intelligence gathering, Earth observation, and national defense, as well for increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it."

Combine this guidance with the essentially flat defense budgets expected over the next five years and one conclusion looms as inescapable: there will be very few new programs begun by the US military.

This guidance appears to continue a trend set by Pentagon budgets over at least the last five years. The proportion of funds spent on development -- as opposed to research -- has grown substantially and consistently, according to Todd Harrison, budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. That development money is spent on already existing programs, not creating new ones.

In the long run, the absence of new programs combined with limits on the topline will probably force the United States to reconsider its basic approach to power projection, said Jim Thomas, head of strategic studies at CSBA.

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