By Michael Lucibella
In the first portion of the FY 2012 budget passed by Congress, support for scientific research is mostly preserved despite cumulative budget cuts across different agencies. The budget covers a fraction of government spending, and only a portion of scientific research funding as well, but many advocates for science find the move encouraging.
Congress passed a “minibus” bill on November 17 made up of three appropriations bills, for Agriculture, Transportation-HUD, and Commerce-Justice-Science, which includes the budgets for NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The minibus all told cut about 1 percent of funding from the agencies it covers, but scientific programs within many of those agencies were largely spared such cuts. Overall funding for the agencies in these bills is 7 percent less than what was requested by the Obama administration, which included significant increases to many scientific programs.
“Some people complained because it’s not what the president requested,” said Patrick Clemins, former director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “If you look, there’s a couple of numbers that are bigger than the House or Senate requested in the first place.
So if you look at it from that perspective, science did pretty well.”
The budget passed covers some, but not all, government- supported research. It is unclear if these increases indicate strong congressional support of scientific research during a time of budget cuts, or if these programs are exceptions.
“It’s too early to tell, we only have one piece of it…that represents the National Science Foundation, NIST and NASA,” said Michael Lubell, APS director of public affairs. “Of the big pieces, we're still missing Energy and NIH and at this point we don’t know what’s going to happen with those.”
The National Science Foundation got a surprising $173 million, or 2.5 percent boost to its budget bringing its total to $7.03 billion. Earlier versions of the bill in the House kept the budget the same as 2011, while a Senate version cut $161 million. The research account of the NSF benefits the most, getting a nearly 3 percent bump to $5.7 billion, while its education directorate would shrink 4 percent to $829 million. The increase is largely to try to make up for the expiration of the stimulus package passed in 2009. The stimulus added $3 billion to the NSF which was awarded as grants, and rather than have half completed experiments run out of funding, Congress opted to increase the budget to partially cover continuing research. NIST also got a big increase, about 12 percent or $33 million, bringing the total for the agency to $751 million.
NASA is getting a bit of a haircut with its budget trimmed about $650 million, about 3.5 percent, to $17.8 billion, $924 million less than the President’s request. However, the agency’s science budget is getting a $155 million boost to $5.1 billion. Significantly, the budget includes funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which had its funding zeroed out in an earlier draft of the House budget. In August, the APS Executive Board released a statement urging Congress to reinstate funds for the JWST.
All together about $530 million is designated for the telescope in 2012, $374M more than the president requested. However the budget imposes an $8 billion cap on total spending for it, $800 million less than NASA now estimates the project to cost. Legislators explained in an accompanying summary of the full appropriations bill that the telescope would be funded by making cuts to other programs and setting up new cost oversight measures. It is unclear which scientific programs might be the targets of cuts.
The increase in the science budget is offset by a $1.3 billion cut to space operations bringing it to $4.2 billion, stemming largely from the end of the space shuttle program and cuts to the development of commercial space taxis.
Lubell said that he thought these increases are likely not part of a bigger trend. Many of the programs that got budget increases are agencies that have historically had strong backing from appropriation subcommittee chairs in the House and Senate.
“NIST and NSF are favorites of [Representative Frank] Wolf and NASA is one of [Senator Barbara] Mikulski’s favorites,” Lubell said. He added that when the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health budgets come up for a vote, he does'nt think that the support for scientific research will necessarily be as strong; however it is unclear when this might happen.
Politics were also a big factor in OSTP’s taking a big hit. The Office is getting its budget slashed 32 percent from $6.6 million to $4.5 million. The earlier draft of the budget passed by the House had a much bigger, 55 percent cut, while the earlier Senate version had only a 9 percent cut. The two houses of Congress opted to split the difference at their budget conference. It is unclear if the cuts will result in any layoffs at the office, as many of its staff are on loan from other agencies and institutions, but officials say it will force the office to reprioritize its activities.
“They definitely will be limited in terms of what kind of advice they can provide to the administration in terms of reports,” Clemins said. “They’re optimistic that they can work with that, and can still provide advice to the President”
The impetus for the steep cut apparently stems from a dispute between the Office and Congressional Republicans, particularly Wolf. The 2011 budget resolution passed last year contained language prohibiting NASA and the OSTP from collaborating with China over concerns that the Chinese would steal sensitive technology or information. John Holdren, Director of the OSTP, held meetings with Chinese officials in the spring, after the ban was in place. Wolf was reportedly furious at the action and moved to slash the office’s budget.
The 2012 budget also contains language prohibiting similar meetings, but it does allow for some collaborations if the White House can confirm that there is no chance that sensitive technology or information will be transferred, and the Office gives Congress a two-week notification of the meeting.