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NOAA climate-study projects hurt by federal earmarking
Scripps Howard News Service


April 10, 2006

A 50 percent budget cut is delaying upgrades for supercomputers for modeling hurricanes and improving storm prediction.

An effort to understand how much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide the United States generates is limping along because of a 30 percent cut.

The sole U.S. civilian laboratory dedicated to monitoring and predicting solar storms, which can knock out communications satellites and trigger power blackouts, is running on 44 percent less money than in 2005.




With the war in Iraq costing more than $4.5 billion a month and entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security on the rise, times are tough for federal "discretionary" programs, which include everything from scientific research to the FBI.

But several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiatives are less victims of shrinking budgets than of political horse-trading that increasingly threatens the long-term health of strategic U.S. science programs, some scientists and policymakers say.

Some of the nation's core climate-research efforts have seen their budgets cut an average of 15 percent this year, lab officials say. That's far more than the 8.2 percent drop in NOAA's overall research budget, which fell from about $414 million in 2005 to $380 million this year.

Earmarking, known technically as "directed spending" and sometimes derisively as "pork," involves legislators directing specific projects to their districts without giving the responsible federal agencies a say.

In its "2006 Congressional Pig Book," the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste reported 9,964 earmarks it regards as pork, worth $29 billion this year. That's up from 958 such earmarks worth $12.5 billion in 1996.

"If you're generating earmarks for districts directed into projects and the investment is well-supported, that's the way Congress has operated for 200 years," said U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

But it is an imperfect system, as the well-publicized story of the Alaskan "bridges to nowhere" demonstrated last year. Alaskan Republican Don Young tucked about $450 million in earmarks for two bridges into a transportation bill.

But earmarks can affect the long-term health of a taxpayer-funded, multibillion-dollar federal research program.

Earmarking takes the job of prioritizing research away from lab directors and makes it "almost entirely political," said Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado.

"Science has a long track record of being merit-based," Pielke said. "Earmarking pits jobs and moving money against excellence, and we shouldn't be surprised when excellence suffers when that occurs."

The Golden, Colo.-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory suffered a $28 million budget shortfall due to congressional earmarking. The earmarks meant 32 layoffs at the country's top renewable-energy lab, despite increasing political interest in energy independence. The U.S. Department of Energy restored about $5 million of the money on the eve of President Bush's visit to the lab in February. The workers were rehired, but programs remain hobbled, NREL officials said.

NOAA's budget cuts have received less attention.

The Bush administration and both the House and Senate versions of spending bills requested $13 million for NOAA's High Performance Computing & Communications office. The budget ended up being halved compared to last year's.

"It was killed in conference, which is very tough to deal with," said Alexander "Sandy" MacDonald, acting director of NOAA's Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, which oversees six NOAA atmospheric research divisions.

The supercomputers are key tools in improving forecasters' ability to predict weather in general, and severe storms and hurricanes in particular. The cuts came less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

MacDonald said NOAA has delayed an upgrade of the supercomputers for nine months and hopes the same cuts don't happen again in 2007.

James Butler, deputy director of NOAA's Global Monitoring Division in Boulder, said his division's budget is down an average of 15 percent this year.

Among its activities, the lab monitors carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists believe are causing global warming. The division's Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group, the world's foremost monitor of global carbon-dioxide levels for a half-century, saw its budget slashed 30 percent.

Butler said among the programs the group is paring back is a network of sensors on radio towers and in small aircraft to study how much carbon dioxide land and vegetation absorbs versus how much the nation's collective smokestacks and tailpipes emit.

But NOAA also benefits from earmarking. Jim Meagher, NOAA's air-quality program manager, said the earmarks for air-quality studies in New England and Tennessee have kept many NOAA scientists busy.

The 2007 presidential budget request would cut NOAA's research money another 8.2 percent, to $349 million.

NOAA scientists won't be raising a ruckus. Federal employees are forbidden from lobbying.

"There has been no public outcry because the stakeholder groups are small, but the impacts are enormous," Udall said.

Given the political realities of Congress, Udall said complaining about earmarks is a sensitive issue: "How do I do it in such a way that there's no retaliation in the next budget cycle?" Udall asked.


Contact Camera staff writer Todd Neff at nefft(at)
Contact Todd Neff of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at

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Ketchikan, Alaska