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US Science Agencies Squeezed in Final Fiscal Year 2024 Budget

Agencies are bracing for another tight budget year.

By
Published Apr 12, 2024
Department of Energy building grounds
The U.S. Department of Energy.
Credit: JHVEPhoto - stock.adobe.com

Lofty rhetoric from lawmakers about increasing science spending met the hard reality of budget caps this year, with Congress cutting most science agencies in its final appropriations for fiscal year 2024. The numbers are set through two packages of legislation, the first signed into law on March 9 and the second on March 23.

Among the hardest hit agencies is the National Science Foundation, whose budget is shrinking 8% to $9.06 billion. The cut reverses much of the 12% increase that Congress provided NSF last year through a special supplementary appropriation.

Congress framed that $1 billion supplement as a down payment on the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which proposes rapidly expanding NSF as well as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the DOE Office of Science. But the supplement ultimately was a maneuver to evade budget limits negotiated for that year, and Congress was unwilling to make the same move this year.

NIST also received one of the largest cuts in percentage terms across science agencies, dropping 8% to $1.16 billion. This rolls back about half of the increase Congress provided NIST for the previous fiscal year, for which its base budget grew 18% to $1.26 billion. (These figures exclude earmarks for projects external to NIST.)

The DOE’s Office of Science was one of the few science agencies to escape budget cuts, receiving a 1.7% increase to $8.24 billion that builds on the 8% increase it received last fiscal year. Nevertheless, the amount for this year is unlikely to keep pace with inflation and will still present the agency with hard choices on what programs to prioritize.

Together, these three agencies are now more than $8 billion dollars below the targets the CHIPS and Science Act set for fiscal year 2024.

Though disappointing for science advocates, the outcome is not surprising. Congress routinely does not follow through on the budget targets it sets for itself. The present dynamic echoes the story of the America COMPETES Acts, whose ambitions for growing the same three agencies evaporated after a 2011 showdown over raising the national debt limit led to a decade of budget caps.

The latest outcome has its roots in a similar fight last spring over raising the debt limit. The Republican-controlled House ultimately agreed to raise the limit in exchange for creating new budget caps on discretionary spending. The compromise, implemented through the Fiscal Responsibility Act and a verbal side-agreement, holds total non-defense spending roughly flat for fiscal year 2024 and only permits a 1% increase for fiscal year 2025.

Defense-focused research is not exempt from the belt-tightening. For instance, Congress cut the Defense Department’s budget for basic research 10% to $2.63 billion for fiscal year 2024, rolling it back to near the amount it received four years ago. One exception to the trend is that Congress raised the DOE’s portfolio of nuclear weapons stewardship research, technology, and evaluation programs by 11% to $3.28 billion.

Science agencies are now bracing for another tight budget year in anticipation that the fiscal year 2025 spending cap will remain in place.

Some science advocates are pinning their hopes on the possibility of Congress boosting science budgets through special legislation. For instance, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has signaled interest in developing a follow-on to the CHIPS and Science Act, which in theory could include direct appropriations for select technology areas analogous to the original act’s $52 billion injection into the semiconductor sector.

However, the overall appetite in Congress for further special measures has been dampened. Congress has already passed a slew of major spending initiatives in recent years beyond the CHIPS Act, namely pandemic recovery legislation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and wartime support for Ukraine.

Mitch Ambrose

Mitch Ambrose is Director of FYI, a trusted source of science policy news published by the American Institute of Physics since 1989.

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