Budget shouldn't cut innovation

The lengthy and contentious process of putting together the nation's budget always forces agencies to take a hard look at funding priorities in light of economic realities. But NASA's experience with the House of Representatives last month is a painful reminder that much damage can be done in the name of fiscal responsibility.

At a time when Congress and the president are wrangling over how to manage budget surpluses, the House last month passed a fiscal 2000 appropriations bill that gives NASA about $12.7 billion - nearly $1 billion less than its fiscal 1999 budget and $900 million less than the president had requested.

As is often the case, the bill targets several information technology-based programs, including the Earth Observing System, an ongoing project to monitor the global climate. Although IT proj-ects often seem expendable - not central to an agency's core mission - when Congress is looking for cuts, that kind of thinking can be dangerous when dealing with NASA and other agencies that rely heavily on technology.

The Hill must resist the urge to make a quick draw on projects aimed at innovation. Many corporations have suffered because they did not invest enough time and money in building for the future. The government cannot afford to make the same mistake.

The proposed cuts to NASA's budget are so severe that some observers have warned that entire centers could be shut down. Whether those concerns are valid or merely scare tactics meant to force Congress to back off its cuts, they certainly will earn the attention of NASA employees and perhaps even tip the scales of workers already weighing the benefits of leaving for the more lucrative private sector.

The choice between funding a system that monitors global climate changes and paying for a veterans program is not an easy one. But budgeteers need to be careful that the budget ax does not cut too deeply at the root of technology innovation in government.

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