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Bush seeks spending increases in research, surveillance

Proposed $2.9 trillion budget includes millions for science and tech studies, traveler screening programs--and a few cutbacks.

President Bush's proposed $2.9 trillion budget for next year calls for increases in some scientific research funding, along with boosts for counterterrorism surveillance and screening programs.

The proposal, unveiled Monday, seeks a balanced budget by 2012 while increasing spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means curbing so-called "mandatory" spending by domestic agencies, including slashing the "growth rate" of the government's Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs by $96 billion.

"My formula for a balanced budget reflects the priorities of our country at this moment in its history: protecting the homeland and fighting terrorism, keeping the economy strong with low taxes, and keeping spending under control while making federal programs more effective," Bush said in a message accompanying his proposal.

The budget, however, is only a nonbinding request from the Bush administration to a Democrat-controlled Congress, which has already suggested it will be radically reshaped.

The president's plan includes beefing up spending for his American Competitiveness Initiative, which aims to ensure that the United States keeps up with its global competitors in the science and technology realm.

Under the proposed budget, the National Science Foundation would receive $6.4 billion in funding, a 6.8 percent boost from last year. Of that amount, about $5.1 billion would go to "research and related activities," which in the past "has contributed to the development of the Internet and Internet search engines, fiber optics, color plasma displays, magnetic resonance imaging, and other advances that now help each of us in our daily lives," according to the president's budget breakdown for that agency.

That number includes $390 million--an increase of 4.5 percent from last year--for NSF's nanotechnology research arm, and $994 million--a 10 percent boost--for its Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program.

Some tech-centric agencies could experience cuts. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, for instance, saw an increase in budget levels for its core research activities. But its Advanced Technology Program, which is designed to explore "unproven, early stage technologies," appears to be on the way out. Its proposed funding plummeted from about $79 billion this year to zero dollars for the next fiscal year. NIST representatives did not respond immediately to requests for clarification.

As outlined during his State of the Union address last month, Bush asked Congress to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for research on alternative energy technologies including solar photovoltaic, biofuels, and advanced battery hybrid and "plug-in" vehicle research. The largest chunk, at $385 billion, would go to coal research initiatives, closely followed by $309 million for hydrogen fuel studies.

The overall budgets for the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security also saw slight boosts, with an emphasis on government screening and surveillance programs.

Within the Homeland Security department, the president proposed $1 billion for the so-called Secure Border Initiative, which includes plans for a "virtual fence" composed of motion sensors, infrared cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that the administration hopes will help keep better tabs on illicit entrants.

Homeland Security also would receive a $21.9 million increase in funding for its Science and Technology Office of Innovation, which hopes to develop technologies that would create a more resilient electric grid and detect tunnels along the border, among other things. Overall funding levels for the Science and Technology directorate under Bush's proposal, however, would drop from $848 million for fiscal year 2007 to $799 million for the upcoming year.

Traveler screening projects, some of which have proven controversial, would also receive increased funding. Secure Flight, an airline passenger profiling system that was plagued by privacy concerns, would receive a $38 million boost in funding for the next fiscal year. The president requested $146.2 million for implementation of a system that would allow U.S. authorities to record and screen all 10 fingerprints of foreign entrants to the country, as opposed to the two prints that are currently required.

Under the banner of "preventing and combating terrorism," the president called for an additional $227 million for various Justice Department programs in that realm. Among those requests: an extra $37.8 million "to address the demand for secure interception of data from public and private networks" and $22.8 million for investigators engaged in computer analysis and digital forensics. Those requests mark significant boosts from last year, when those activities received $17.9 million and $19.7 million respectively.

The Justice Department's budget also includes more than $25 million in program increases--up from $93.7 million last year--for investigations involving child pornography and obscenity, particularly tracking convicted sex offenders and apprehending "online child pornographers and molesters."

For the fourth straight year, the president plans to allow the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to keep all the fees it collects, which are expected to be around $1.9 billion. The agency said Monday that it hopes to use its funds to hire 1,200 new patent examiners in the next fiscal year.

With opposition to the budget already emanating from the Democrat-controlled Congress, it's unlikely the proposal will be enacted as is.

"Today's budget from the president is just more of the same fiscal irresponsibility and misplaced priorities," U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "It takes our country in the wrong direction."

What remains to be seen is how the science- and technology-related provisions will hold up.

For instance, while the president requested $17.3 billion--a 3.1 percent increase over his request for the previous year--for NASA's fiscal year 2008 budget, the agency doesn't expect to get that from Congress. For 2007, Congress appropriated $400 million less than the president's requested $16.8 billion. NASA administrator Michael Griffin warned in a press conference Monday that continual NASA budget cuts may cause U.S. astronauts to be grounded for as long as five years and force cutbacks in science programs and lunar robotic explorations.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said the funding increases were helpful, but the plan overall "lacks the priorities and consistency to ensure our competitiveness now and in the long run."

CNET's Candace Lombardi and Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.