Congress Weighs the Future of Science Funding
By Michael Lucibella
Capitol Hill is flush with proposals to modify the federal science budget. Though experts say that many of the various funding plans have little chance of becoming law, the proposals offer insight into the direction and obstacles facing federal science funding in the coming years.
Dueling Visions of the Federal Government
The president released his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 on March 4, which keeps overall discretionary spending roughly in line with inflation over the next decade. On April 1, the House Budget Committee released its proposal, which would reduce overall discretionary spending by $5.1 trillion over the next ten years.
These budgets are essentially a list of their respective authors’ priorities, and the size of increases and decreases reflects the importance assigned to each program. The two documents offer contrasting views of the role of the federal government in American society, and hence the role of government support of the sciences.
By law, the discretionary budget for 2015 is limited to about $1.01 trillion by spending caps agreed to in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill (that is, one bill covering budgets from almost all agencies). This breaks down to $492 billion for non-defense funding and $521 billion for defense, nearly identical to last year.
“This is a tough fiscal year,” said Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “There are a lot of fiscal constraints.”
The president’s budget pushes the boundaries somewhat. It proposes increasing the total federal discretionary budget by 0.2% over last year, with research and development programs increasing by 0.6% and specifically non-defense R&D growing by 0.8%. In contrast, inflation is expected to rise to 1.7% over the next year.
These numbers, calculated by AAAS, cover all areas of science including medical, biological, energy, and basic physical sciences. It also bins basic science together with applied-technology development, two different ends of the research spectrum.
“Total [basic] research would actually decline by a little bit,” Hourihan said.
Separating out basic physical science research yields a more mixed bag. When taking inflation into account, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) got a 2.4% bump, while the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science dropped 0.4%. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is down about 1.4%, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) loses 2.7%. Research within the Defense Department would drop by 12%. Within DOE, sustainable energy research continues to be a priority with its Advanced Research Projects Administration-Energy division getting about a 15% increase, while high-energy physics is slated for a 6.6% cut.
“[I would challenge] the White House proposition that somehow the president’s budget reflects the importance of R&D,” said Michael Lubell, the APS director of public affairs.
The Republican-authored House budget proposal, the so-called “Ryan Budget,” takes a different approach to science funding and emphasizes military R&D funding over non-defense research. In unadjusted dollars, defense R&D would climb a total of about $42 billion, or 5.8%, over the president’s request in the next ten years, while non-defense R&D would drop by $112 billion or 16.9% in the same period of time.
“If you compare the president’s request to the House budget request [for non-defense R&D], there’s a difference of over $100 billion,” Hourihan said.
The partisan divide in Washington is so deep, however, that neither proposal is likely to pass. The Ryan Budget passed in the House on April 10, but has little chance to get through the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“The House budget resolution in the grand scheme of things doesn’t really matter too much,” Hourihan said. “It does represent one vision for the shape and composition of government. It is a campaign document.”
The divide between the two houses of Congress appears insurmountable, and analysts say there will likely be no grand bargain reached on spending, and no replay of the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill passed in January.
“I’m anticipating a continuing resolution,” Lubell said. Usually when a federal budget isn’t agreed upon, Congress passes a continuing resolution, which essentially carries over funding from the previous fiscal year. This means that budgets stay about flat in unadjusted dollars, and decline in real value because of inflation.
Looking ahead to 2016, the picture is murkier still. The sequester, which was designed to reduce discretionary spending by nearly $1 trillion over eight years, hasn’t entirely gone away. The budget agreement for 2014 reduced the mandatory cuts imposed on the discretionary budget by about half, and reduced those cuts for 2015 by a quarter. So far Congress hasn’t made any agreements to reduce the sequester for 2016, but the deadline to do so is still far off.
“We’ll see what happens; they keep coming up with these small deals,” Hourihan said. “My fear is they’re going to run out of small fixes.”
Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative
On top of the proposed federal budget, the president also announced the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI), which would add an additional $56 billion to the budget. About $5.3 billion of this would be directed towards various research and development budgets including NIST, NSF and NASA. “[If it were to happen] most of the big science agencies would get a pretty big bump out of that initiative,” Hourihan said. He estimated that with the OGSI added on to the president’s proposed budget, the increase in overall research and development funding would grow from 0.6 % to 4.5 % over 2013. “That $56 billion dollar plan isn’t real. It’s posturing,” Lubell said. “Nobody’s taking that seriously.”
On its face, the initiative appears to be a non-starter. Senate Democrats have already stated that they’re not going to try to increase the discretionary budget over already agreed-upon spending caps. However the initiative could act as a means for the president to communicate his priorities to Congress. Programs emphasized in the OGSI might get an extra boost when it comes time to appropriate the final budgets for the agencies.
“It wouldn’t really be correct to say the OGSI has no chance of passing. Pieces of it could be passed,” Hourihan said. “Any increase they grant they have to decrease elsewhere.”
Also controversial on the Hill is the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which ups the funding for various science agencies. Previous versions, first passed in 2007 then narrowly renewed in 2010, called for a doubling of the budgets of NSF, NIST and the DOE Office of Science by 2011 and 2017 respectively. Having missed its targets, the COMPETES Act is up again this year for renewal. It is unclear if any version of this bill will be signed into law.
While the Senate’s version is a fairly straightforward continuation of the previous legislation, with the new doubling target date pushed back to 2023, the House is taking a fundamentally different approach. House Republicans split the bill between the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (the FIRST Act), which covers NSF, NIST and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America Act (the EINSTEIN Act), which covers the Department of Energy. The EINSTEIN Act has yet to be formally introduced, but controversy has dogged the FIRST Act even before it was officially revealed.
Under the Senate’s COMPETES, funding for NSF and NIST would increase by about 4.9% each year until 2019 when the bill would have to be reauthorized. The FIRST Act approves increased funding for only one year and would raise the agencies’ budgets by 1.5%, just below the predicted inflation rate.
However, the most controversial aspects of the FIRST Act are the modifications it makes to NSF’s peer-review process. The original version required that all grants demonstrate that the research would benefit the country by contributing to its economic growth or national defense and also identify the staffer awarding each grant. In addition, the bill draft zeroed out all funding for social science research. “The bill itself is highly contentious and unlikely to elicit much support in the Senate,” Lubell said. “The reaction to it has been very negative from the science and technology community.” Several organizations including the APS, AAAS and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology released statements criticizing the bill.
Also in response, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) introduced a version of the Senate’s COMPETES Act into the House, but analysts say that it has little chance of becoming law.
The requirements were softened when the FIRST Act was marked up on March 13 to require grants to have only “the potential” to benefit society, and dropped the identification requirements. It also restored about 60% of the social science research funding. “It tells the Foundation how to conduct business,” Lubell said. “This has never been done as far as I know.” The revised version also imposes a lifetime limit of five NSF grants a researcher can receive.“There are people who say that the real objective is to give younger investigators a leg up,” Lubell said. “There are plenty of ways of doing this that are more effective than crippling the peer-review process.”
The sharp policy and funding differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill mean that compromise is unlikely. “The Democrats and the Republicans are so completely far apart, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen there,” Hourihan said. “From a funding perspective, it’s hard to see where the compromise is going to come from.”
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