APS News

Science Funding on the Table as President, Congress Battle Over Budget

The future of federal support for scientific research is intimately tied to the debate over the federal budget. Two competing documents, the proposed continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, and the President’s 2012 budget proposal, have embroiled the White House and Congressional Republicans in a fight about the future of the federal budget. The debate carries with it serious implications for the future of federally funded scientific research in the United States.

Congress never passed a budget for fiscal year 2011 and has been funding the government under a continuing resolution at roughly 2010 levels. The current resolution expires on March 4, at which time Congress will have to pass some form of legislation either funding the government for the rest of the year, or another temporary extension.

On February 14, President Obama submitted his budget proposal for 2012. At 4:30 a.m. on February 19, the House passed H.R.-1, its budget proposal for the rest of the year which outlined about $60 billion in cuts to the federal budget for 2011 compared to 2010 levels.  

After March 4 one of two things will likely happen. Either Congress will adopt a new continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the year, likely with significant cuts from 2010 levels, or, if no new resolution is immediately agreed upon, the federal government could shut down until a new resolution is adopted.

The cuts contained in the Appropriations Committee’s proposal for the rest of fiscal 2011 (i.e., until September 30) have implications for the future of federally supported science. The National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation would both lose about 10 percent of their budgets. The National Institute for Standards and Technology would be cut by almost 20 percent while the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would be facing cuts of nearly 30 percent.

Michael Lubell, APS director of public affairs, said that the effect of this on scientific research in the United States would be devastating. The cuts at NSF would truncate the number of grants they’d be able to award for the rest of the year. At DOE, layoffs and program shutdowns at national labs would be likely. In addition construction at Jefferson Lab, ITER and the National Synchrotron Light Source would be suspended.

“In the process American science, at least in terms of major facility usage, comes to a screeching halt,” Lubell said.

Patrick Clemins, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that, taken as a whole, scientific research is on balance not in as terrible shape as it could be.

“When you look at the total cuts…research and development looks better than average,” Clemins said, adding that research and development makes up about 12 percent of the federal nonmilitary discretionary budget, but comprises only about 5 percent of the cuts.

“The Republican leaders, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and so forth, are not intent on shutting the government down…they would probably admit that they don’t want to harm American science. They understand the importance of it,” Lubell said. “They have to pay attention to the majority of the Republican conference.”

Adding to the uncertainty about the future of science funding is the proposed 2012 budget released by the President. In it, the budget for numerous research programs gets significant increases, despite cuts in other governmental programs.

“The 2012 budget is the exact opposite side of the coin at least in terms of nondefense research and development,” Clemins said.

All together the President’s proposed budget calls for a 6.5 percent increase for research and development compared to 2010, largely in areas where Congressional Republicans are proposing cuts. This includes a 16 percent bump to the NSF budget, a 9 percent increase in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and nearly a 50 percent increase to NIST’s budget.

The uncertainty comes in because the 2012 budget will be greatly influenced by whatever funding levels are finally approved for 2011. The continuing resolution will likely pass the Republican controlled House largely intact, the Democratic led Senate will likely raise objections to the deep cuts, and the final budget will fall somewhere in the middle.

The severity of the final cuts will play a major role in determining a baseline for the 2012 budget debate to follow. If Republicans are successful in getting the deep cuts into the final budget, it will be difficult for the President and Democrats to raise funding to the proposed levels in 2012.  

Lubell said that because the 2011 budget isn’t settled, he sees the President’s budget more as a political move to reaffirm his support of science and research among voters. Lubell is skeptical that the increases in the 2012 budget will pass in anything resembling their current form.

“It’s pretty clear that Congress won’t accept them, so why do that?” Lubell said. “[The 2012 budget] is a statement of the administration’s priorities. The President made it very clear that among his high priorities are science and education…The fact that his 2012 budget maintains support for those areas is no surprise.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos