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By Mitch Ambrose
Federal agencies that fund physical science programs are receiving budget increases of varying sizes under the spending legislation for fiscal year 2020 that was enacted late last year.
The Department of Energy stands out as among the biggest beneficiaries, with several of its applied energy R&D offices seeing double-digit percentage boosts. For instance, the Office of Nuclear Energy budget is rising 13% to 1.5 billion, making room for a new 230 million program that will support advanced reactor demonstration projects.
Fundamental research is receiving more moderate increases, with funding for the DOE Office of Science rising 6% to an even 7 billion. The office’s annual budget has now grown by nearly 2 billion over the course of the last five years.
This year’s increases are spread across its six disciplinary programs, with most seeing increases in the range of 2% to 7%. However, the Fusion Energy Sciences program garnered an outsized boost of 19% to accommodate a near doubling of the U.S. contribution to the ITER facility in France, reflecting renewed confidence in the project’s management. Overall funding for non-ITER activities will drop slightly though, squeezing the domestic fusion research portfolio.
The National Science Foundation topline is increasing 2.5% to 8.3 billion. The appropriation includes 65 million to launch a new program that will fund construction of midscale research infrastructure. It also includes the 33 million NSF requested to begin its five year, 150 million contribution to detector upgrades at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, which will prepare them for the upcoming high luminosity upgrade to the collider’s beams. DOE will contribute $100 million to the detector and beam upgrades this year.
The budget for the National Institute of Standards and Technology is increasing 5% to just over $1 billion. Much of the boost is targeted toward quantum information science and artificial intelligence research, areas that Congress and the Trump administration broadly agree on as top priorities.
Quantum science and AI are prioritized across other agencies as well. For instance, Congress directs the DOE Office of Science to allocate 195 million for quantum information science, a 60% increase over last year. The amount includes 75 million for establishing up to five research centers, as called for in the law that launched the National Quantum Initiative. NSF is directed to allocate $50 million for standing up its share of the research centers required under the initiative.
President Trump is scheduled to release his budget request for fiscal year 2021 on Feb. 10. Although Congress is apt to reject any proposals to slash science spending, as it has for Trump’s past budget requests, it will face difficult choices this year in how to allocate any increases. Under a bipartisan budget agreement reached last year, caps on federal spending will only rise slightly in fiscal year 2021.
Nevertheless, some lawmakers have signaled an appetite for further ramping up spending in specific research fields. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Industries of the Future Act, which would direct the White House to sketch out a plan for doubling federal spending on quantum information science and artificial intelligence research by fiscal year 2022. The plan would also detail options for increasing R&D investment in those areas as well as biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and next-generation communications to $10 billion over the next five years.
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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