Tuesday, February 14, 2012

U.S. Budget & Science: pluses and minuses, commercial interests favored

In the United States, with the release of President Obama's proposed budget for the fiscal year of 2013, many branches and departments within government must now await to see what the final outcome is - whether proposed cuts are sustained by Congress or whether increases get cut back. If past experience from the last few years and initial comments from Republican leaders are any indication, it's going to get messy.

Overall, for science, the proposed budget provides a modest increase of about 5 percent for non-defense research and development. However, priorities - and budget dollars - favor those areas that have economic or commercial implications.

According to reporting by Nature.com,
“'Overall, the budget sustains an upward trend,' says John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington DC. 'Because of fiscal restraints, it’s not at the rate we preferred.'”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), receives a 3 percent increase with a portion of that going to further develop a program of polar-orbiting weather and environment satellites that has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

An assessment of spending and cuts, cited by ScienceInsider, points out the strategy or method-to-the-madness wherein departments that have an immediate impact on economic or commercial interests retain or increase funding. And the programs or projects which get cuts are those that might, in essence, bring up bad news, like threatened species, and would require remedial action (and therefore more expenditures).

"NOAA's National Ocean Service (NOS), which includes the agency's marine sanctuary network and estuarine research reserves, would see a 4% cut to $458.5 million, down from $477.9 million this year. The NOS's conservation and ocean assessment programs would take a $10 million cut, to $166.1 million, while the marine sanctuary program would lose $1 million, bringing it to $46.6 million."

"The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages fisheries within the 322-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone off U.S. shores, would get an 8% increase to $857.8 million, up form $794.2 million this year. But programs aimed at studying and protecting threatened species would take a $6.4 million cut, to $170 million, and habitat conservation and restoration programs would fall by $7.2 million, to about $36 million."

Another example of preference toward economic interests can be seen in NOAA's 2012 interim catch limits set for Gulf of Maine cod. To avoid having the spawning biomass get below 7,300 metric tons - which would push the population to a tipping point of collapse, a catch limit was set at 6,700 metric tons. However, the Conservation Law Foundation has compiled scientific recommendations that put the appropriate limit at 4,000 metric tons - a limit that is hotly contested by commercial fishery groups as too low to sustain their fleet.

Additionally, larger and more influential industrial fishing fleets are getting a distinct advantage over smaller, local fishermen with NOAA's "catch share system" which allows the larger boats to work inshore rather than limited to farther out at sea.

According to Massachusett's Gloucester Times, "In November, before the arrival of the cod crisis, Gov. Deval Patrick, backed by the congressional delegation, filed socio-economic research evidence showing that the fishery was consolidating into an economic disaster through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's catch share system, which is steering more and more permits and quota into the hands of fewer and larger businesses, and away from smaller, independent boats. NOAA's own figures show that Gloucester's fleet lost some two dozen of its estimated 96 boats in the 2010 to 2011 fishing year alone."

It's to be expected that during this difficult economy, with its slow and fragile recovery combined with calls for deficit control, many of the areas of interest to conservationists would be subjected to a lack of political commitment. Areas that support industry and possible job growth are bound to get all the attention.

But the influence peddlers who prowl the halls of Washington can often succeed in shuffling priorities and budget dollars for short-term gain, while non-profit environmental and conservation organizations and scientific research groups scrounge for every nickel they can get their hands on. And it's those very groups, working on behalf of the planet, which are looking at long-term consequences that will not only save plant and animal species and whole ecosystems but, as a result, commercial industries as well. If we, as constituents, choose to raise our voices to our elected officials, it should be in support of those groups and those issues that have the greatest impact on our long-term future as a civilization.

Trying to be guardedly optimistic regarding the proposed budget, Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Washington DC-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “They did a pretty good job in making sure we are not hurting our environment and conservation programs.”

We shall see.

Source: Nature.com
Source: Gloucester Times
Source: ScienceInsider


Anonymous said...

There is little to no chance that the budget will pass and it won't be entirely the republicans fault. Last year the presidents budget was voted down in the senate by a vote of 97 to 0. I am so sick and tired of hearing how the republicans want to poison kids and have dirty air and water. Give me a break! Someone has to take a hard line and try to rein in spending or the economy will collapse and without a robust economy the ecology will suffer. We have the cleanest country in the world and pollute less than anybody and it's because we can afford to concentrate on nature. Take away the thriving economy and we will wind up looking like Honduras.

RTSea said...

Anonymous - I don't believe that what I wrote was accusing Republicans of being responsible for whatever woes the budget will endure. The issue is a lack of political partisanship and that is a two-way street.

Nor do I choose to spend much time or interest in extreme hyperbole, so I do not claim that Republicans desire to poison children with dirty air and water.

Certainly the economy needs some serious mending but unfortunately lobbyists and industry support groups currently have the inside track and that can be at the expense of other worthwhile programs. So, while spending definitely needs to be under control, it's the ability to do so with objective balance that is at risk.

But I will have to say that while I applaud your enthusiasm for the US, you need to check your facts more closely. To say that we are the cleanest country in the world and pollute less than anybody is an exaggeration. Yes, there are certainly worse polluters, but being the industrial nation that we are, we are no angels. It has brought great things but at a heavy price that is becoming more and more clear.

Thank you for your comment and interest in the subject.