How Cuts in the Pentagon Science Budget Will Hurt Basic Research

Despite military downsizing, the White House has previously shielded science research at the Department of Defense from budget cuts. But this year, the administration requested a 6.9% reduction. That has universities worried since they receive 10% of their federal research funding from the Pentagon.

In testimony before Congress this past March, Alan Shaffer, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, estimated that this budget reduction "will cut about 1,500 [academic] grants nationwide, give or take."

Academic institutions had hoped that Congress might restore at least part of this funding. But, yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that largely adhered to the administration's budget, with only a slight decrease, from 6.9% to 6.4%.

The Association of American Universities was quick to respond:

We are dismayed by the House Appropriations Committee's Defense bill… The basic research DOD has conducted since World War II has consistently made our nation's military the world's best equipped, most technologically advanced force. DOD basic research has led to technologies ranging from radar to GPS, from the laser to stealth technology. Congress should approve this kind of cut only if it wishes to erode our armed forces' future technological advantages. We recognize that the damaging spending caps and sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act have put pressure on every area of discretionary spending. But the fact is that basic research is a very small, but vital, part of the Defense budget. Sustaining spending for this critical research priority would have very little impact on the rest of the Defense budget. We urge the full House and the Senate to reverse this unfortunate action.

As Science Insider reports, academic scientists get about one-half of the roughly $2 billion the Pentagon spends on basic research, known as the "6.1" budget line in Department of Defense parlance. Overall, the U.S. military provides about one-half of the research funding in many engineering fields, one-third in computer science, and one-fifth in math and physics.

But in his testimony, Shaffer told Congress that, in the face of severe budget cuts, the Pentagon will increasingly push its money into applied science projects that are closer to fruition and rely more on R&D that's coming out of the commercial sector:

Most of U.S. basic research is conducted at universities and colleges and funded by the federal government. However, the largest share of U.S. total R&D is development, which is largely performed by the business sector. The business sector also performs the majority of applied research.

This implies that DoD needs to be more cognizant of industry R&D as part of our overall capability development and remain sensitive to the importance of federally funded academic research....We already know that industry drives most microelectronics and semiconductors development; older infrared focal planes, routine communications, computers. The technology coming from these sectors is sufficient to meet most DoD capability needs. The DoD should be an adopter, not a leader in these areas.

Congress won't make a final decision on the spending bill until after the November elections. But Shaffer has warned that funding will be under similar stress in fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018 because of overall constraints imposed by the Budget Control Act.