Washington (UPI) Jan 03, 2005
A large number of post-election resignations have left leaderless the federal agencies managing most of the government's science research as the first year of President George W. Bush's second term unfolds.
The rush for the door comes just as the agencies are facing budget cuts that likely will force difficult choices among programs.
Among the science agencies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may have the most at stake over the next 12 months as it makes decisions that will set its course for years to come. Outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe managed to persuade Congress to give his agency $822 million more for fiscal year 2005 than it had received in 2004. NASA also received unusual latitude in deciding how to allocate the money among programs.
Nevertheless, NASA's new appropriation is $44 million short of the amount requested and must cover the cost of returning the space shuttle fleet to flight status, as well as continue support of the International Space Station. The astronomy community is pressing NASA to find a way to repair the popular Hubble Space Telescope and the agency must begin developing hardware to support Bush's plan to return humans to the moon and someday send them on to Mars.
Each of these endeavors contains significant technical challenges that could lead to cost overruns.
Should NASA outstrip its budget, as it has done before, it will have to choose what to cut to make ends meet. New money is not likely to be available and, more important, O'Keefe will not be there to go to bat for it. He resigned last month to take on the job of leading Louisiana State University.
NASA is not the only federal agency sailing without a captain at the moment. The secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Energy, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security likewise resigned after last November's election. Also leaving is Michael Leavitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has been nominated to take over at HHS.
The new leadership at these agencies all will be getting up to speed at about the same time they will need to be plotting cleverly how to protect their budgets - and the science programs they fund - from a Congress looking for money to spend elsewhere.
The temptation to redirect money away from basic science is going to be overwhelming. Aside from the fact the Bush administration has been planning all along to scale back spending on non-defense-related research, setbacks and mistakes over past year have ratcheted up the financial pressure.
The U.S. effort in Iraq, for example, is proving far more difficult than anticipated and costs are spiraling. Terrorism spending is continuing unabated, with ever louder warnings that more money is needed.
Though it is not news that both the Medicare and Social Security programs are facing serious financial challenges, Congress was shocked to discover last year the new Medicare prescription drug benefit it had just approved was going to cost billions of dollars more than originally thought.
On top of these avoidable disasters, the administration had to tap into already depleted accounts to help those hurt when hurricanes slammed repeatedly into Florida and a tsunami wiped out the lives and futures of more than 100,000 people in Asia.
The heads of science-supporting agencies will be hard-strapped to defend basic research programs in the face of such spending demands and the administration's desire to hold on to its tax cuts.
More than just the budgets will be troublesome. Several agencies are under heavy criticism for mismanagement or face challenges meeting their mandates in the coming year.
At the Department of Energy, for example, a new contractor will assume management of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico after a series of security failures left DOE doubtful about the ability of the University of California to manage the facilities.
Should Leavitt take over HHS from Tommy Thompson, he will have problems to deal with at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. FDA is reacting to information that several popular prescription drugs may be unsafe.
The revelations could trigger a reorganization at the agency. NIH is at the center of conflict-of-interest charges involving its researchers and the large pharmaceutical companies.
HHS is one of many agencies involved in an effort to conduct further research on global climate change. The White House's Climate Change Science Program, begun with a massive interagency planning effort in February 2002, finally will begin more extensive research activities this year. Other organizations involved include EPA, NASA, Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA also runs the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center - the U.S. organization responsible for tracking the deadly waves. The current system covers only the Pacific Basin, however, and not the Indian Ocean, where the recent disaster was centered.
Bush already has mentioned expanding the current warning network and NOAA is sure to be directly involved. The agency could face further budget strains if a larger, more expensive system is attempted and the countries most in need remain focused on meeting the crisis and in no position to pay for warning technology.
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Analysis: The Triumph Of The Robots
Washington DC (UPI) Jan 03, 2005
The human side of the U.S. space program remains problem-plagued, with the shuttle fleet still grounded and the International Space Station hanging in limbo. NASA's robotic craft exploring Mars and the Saturnian system in 2004, however, have carried off feats that are unparalleled in human history - and they promise to deliver more wonders in the new year.
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