APS News

Uncertainty Looms Over Federal Science Spending

By Michael Lucibella

In the Obama administration’s proposal for the fiscal year 2013 budget, science and engineering overall received a modest bump in spending; however, there are areas with potentially painful cuts. Overshadowing the proposed budget are looming partisan battles in Congress, a presidential election and possible across-the-board spending cuts, casting a great deal of uncertainty over the future of federal science funding levels.

According to the President’s budget, funding for research and development is up about 1.2 percent. This puts the increase below the expected rate of inflation over the next year, but dramatically better than the proposed 2.4 percent cut in federal discretionary spending overall. Nondefense research and development will be getting a 5.1 percent boost while defense R&D, which usually makes up about half of the total R&D expenditures in the federal government, will shrink by $1.5 billion or 1.9 percent.

“This administration has over the years been a pretty strong supporter of science and innovation…given the budget constraints, the budget caps, the budget control acts, the looming sequestration… I think they probably did as well as they could have,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “However just as there are a number of signs of continuing support, there are a number of signs of the limitations they’re facing.”

Energy research is one of the big winners for research dollars, while high energy physics, nuclear physics and domestic fusion research are taking a hit. Overall the Department of Energy’s Office of Science got a 2.6 percent boost in its budget, with programs working on energy research getting the biggest increases. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-E, which focuses on developing energy technology, is getting an extra $75 million, or 27.3 percent increase. Basic Energy Science,

Advanced Scientific Computing and Biological and Environmental research are slated to grow by 6.6 percent, 3.3 percent and 2.6 percent respectively. Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics are all contracting, with budgets declining 0.7 percent, 1.8 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.

“Budget issues are very real. We’d love to have larger budgets for the field we represent, but we have to live with what we can orchestrate through Congress and the administration,” said William Brinkman, head of the DOE Office of Science at a recent meeting of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel.

Under the current budget, the development of Fermilab’s new flagship experiment, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment has been reduced and the project will likely be further stalled and possibly even canceled. In addition the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven would run for 10 weeks, down from a planned 20 this year.

The US contribution to ITER, the major fusion reactor under construction in France, is increasing by about $45 million while the overall budget for fusion research is cut, resulting in the shuttering of the Alcator C-Mod Tokamak at MIT.

NASA is getting a 3.3 percent cut overall, including a 3.2 percent cut in its science program. The James Webb Space Telescope is being supported, but at the cost of deep cuts to the planetary sciences which has already resulted in the likely end to the joint Mars exploration missions with the European Space Agency.

The National Science Foundation is set to receive a 4.8 percent increase, and NIST’s scientific and technical research services would get a 13.8 percent boost.

How much of the proposed budget makes it through Congress is an open question. Budget proposals reflect an administration’s policy priorities, and can be dramatically altered by Congress during the appropriations process. This administration and the current leadership of the House of Representatives have had a particularly acrimonious relationship over federal spending; however scientific research has generally received bipartisan support.

“The House Republicans are not even going to accept the bare bones of [the proposed budget]. They’re going to pull this thing apart completely,” said Michael Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs. “I don’t believe there is going to be any budget whatsoever until at least after the election.”

If no budget is passed by Congress, it is likely that they will pass some kind of continuing resolution, keeping the government operating at 2012 spending levels until a final budget is passed.

The fallout from the Budget Control Act of 2011 is the biggest wildcard facing federal budgets at all agencies. According to the act, after the failure last Fall of the so-called “Super Committee” to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit, significant across-the-board cuts, called sequestration, would set in starting January 2nd  of 2013. The cuts include 8 percent reductions in non-defense discretionary spending, and 11 percent reductions in defense spending.

“Sequestration–that is an absolutely open question,” Hourihan said. “There are real risks for science and engineering funding.”

As it stands, the President’s budget does not factor in the cuts, and it is unclear how and where cuts will be introduced. It’s also possible that Congress can opt to ignore its own mandate for cuts.

“If it comes to pass, I think people will be shocked,” Lubell said. “They [Congress] can do whatever they want.”


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