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'Physical Sciences' Win New Money

Let's get physical.

That's the Bush Administration's message to the scientific community in this year's budget request. It calls for adding nearly $1 billion to spending on basic research in the "physical sciences" such as chemistry and physics. But other fields -- such as biomedical and environmental studies -- would see spending stagnate or decline. And that has some politically powerful researchers ready to rumble.

The Bush plan -- dubbed the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) -- calls for science spending to grow significantly at three civilian science agencies. The National Science Foundation, which mostly makes grants to university scientists, would get a 7.8 percent increase to $6 billion. The Department of Energy's science programs, which fund things like giant atom smashers and lasers, would get a 14 percent bump to $4.1 billion. And core science programs at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which does fundamental studies and helps industry develop new technologies, would get an 18 percent boost to $467 million. The White House argues that these investments -- the down payment on a $136 billion, 10-year plan -- will eventually produce new technologies and products that will strengthen the U.S. economy.

That idea has drawn applause from physical scientists, who for years have been making the same argument themselves. Now, they're hoping to convince Congress -- which controls the purse strings -- to go along.

But not all researchers are pleased by the White House plan. Some note that some of the "new" money has been diverted from existing programs or created by accounting tricks. And skeptics note that the budget proposal calls for spending at nearly all other civilian science programs to stagnate or decline. Spending at the National Institutes of Health, for instance, would stay flat at about $28 billion. And that won't sit well with politically powerful patient groups, who say biomedical research is a matter of life and death, and deserves to share in any new wealth. Look for Congress to come up with its own "political science" for remaking the federal research and development budget.

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David Malakoff
Nicknamed "Scoop" in high school, David Malakoff joined NPR in December of 2004 as the technology and science correspondent for NPR’s science desk. His stories about how science and technology impact people’s daily lives can be heard on all NPR news programs.