Science funding was rarely mentioned during the presidential debates, and with less than a month till Election Day, genomics hasn't come up in national election discussions at all. Is it possible to predict what the consequences of a Democratic or Republican victory might be for science, and in particular for genomics research?
Some consider President Obama's track record in office to be a favorable forecast for what a second term could bring. The Obama administration has ranked “fairly strong on science funding,” according to Matt Hourihan, R&D budget and policy program director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “They’ve tried to keep the need for investment in the spotlight in some key strategic areas,” he says in an email, noting that the administration’s funding requests have bumped up against a tight fiscal climate and appropriators in Congress with different priorities.
Some areas have fared better than others since 2008. The National Institutes of Health has hung on, with its funding levels flat in recent years. And the administration's Bioeconomy Blueprint Plan, released earlier this year, includes some discussion of specific accomplishments and ongoing projects in the field of genomics.
Obama administration officials do "care about innovation and they do care about medical research, but they don’t make it a national priority,” says Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and programs at Research!America, an advocacy organization that surveyed Obama, Romney and more than 100 other candidates about health and medical research issues.
Obama's campaign statements express plans for strong financial support of science. And in response to questions posed by Science Debate 2012, the president says he is “committed to doubling funding for key research agencies.”
Governor Mitt Romney says continued federal funding of research “would be a top priority in my budget.” But his budget plan, and the federal budget proposal authored by his running mate Representative Paul Ryan, would require cuts in discretionary spending, which includes the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies that fund genomics. The AAAS offers a detailed analysis of the potential cuts under the Ryan plan.
Those proposals, of course, are no guarantee of what the candidates would do if elected to the White House. And with all House seats and a portion of Senate seats up for election too in November, what sort of budget would get passed during the next administration is anyone's guess.
The cuts entailed in the Romney and Ryan proposals are far from reality, according to Robert Cook-Deegan, author of The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome and research professor of genome ethics, law and policy at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. “This is what has happened over the years, time and time again," he says. "Somebody takes a political stand: 'We are going to cut spending.' Then they bump up against the fact that lots of people have relatives who have cancer. … Suddenly the real politics of trying to push cuts through the NIH budget descend.
Dehoney says, “I think Governor Romney will maintain support for basic research, but not at the level potentially the Obama administration will push for." She adds that Romney would also be more likely to dramatically reduce the amount of federal funding for translational research.
Of the many government agencies involved in genomics, the NIH at least might have a degree of political immunity, Cook-Deegan says. “Republican and Democratic administrations both generally favor research and development. It’s been a little pocket of the federal government that hasn’t been partisan."
The results of November’s vote could also have implications for reforms to the overburdened Food and Drug Agency, including changes to enable it to handle innovations produced by genomics.
“The Republicans might be more willing to act," says Val Giddings, a senior fellow at The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that has evaluated both candidates’ technology and innovation policies. But, he adds, "I don’t get the sense at all that they know what they would like to do or what would work. The present administration has a much better appreciation of the complexity of the issue.”
Regardless of who wins the country’s top seat, he might have to contend with automatic budget cuts set to take effect in January. The White House has estimated that, if Congress fails to take action, those mandatory cuts will result in a greater than 8 percent reduction in government science program budgets.
Wynne Parry is a journalist based in New York. She is a regular contributor to LiveScience.com, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Discover Magazine and the New York Post.