2016 - A year of budget relief for science

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19 January 2016

The biggest science policy story in 2015 was the strong year-end spending growth for most of the science agencies, but will this year’s budget increases for science have staying power?

When the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO and former member of Congress Rush Holt sounded alarms last year that support for science is eroding in our country, he pointed to the trends backing his assertion. The United States spent nearly 12 percent of the federal budget on R&D in the mid-1960s, when the Apollo Program was at its peak, but by 2015 it was spending a mere moon’s shadow of that: 3.4 percent. The United States at one time clearly led the world in overall R&D investment as a percentage of GDP but has since fallen to 10th place, and continues to fall short of the three percent goal proposed by recent presidents, including President Obama.

In 2012, federal budget sequestration struck, and the major science agencies and offices have seen declining budgets in real dollars ever since. It has been a stressful several years for the U.S. scientific community, with priorities delayed, programs slashed, hiring freezes at the science agencies in place, and travel to scientific conferences restricted.

Some of these ominous trends may be upended this year. Science is experiencing relief thanks to a surprisingly strong agreement to roll back federal budget sequestration for two years and a fiscal year 2016 spending bill signed into law in December that is generous to science. Most science agencies and offices will see major boosts in spending, including as high as an 11.6 percent increase for National Institute of Standards and Technology and 8.2 percent for Department of Defense Science and Technology.

2016 science agency spending highlights include:

National Science Foundation 7,131.4 7,344.2 7,723.6 7,463.5 1.6%
NASA 17,646.5 18,010.2 18,529.1 19,285.0 7.1%
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 5,322.5 5,448.9 5,982.6 5,765.6 5.8%
National Institute of Standards and Technology 850.0 863.9 1,119.7 964.0 11.6%
Department of Energy Office of Science 5,070.2 5,071.0 5,339.8 5,350.2 5.5%
Department of Defense Science & Technology 12,008.6 12,252.0 12,266.3 13,250.7 8.2%
* Figures in millions of U.S. dollars


In fact, fiscal year 2016 spending appears generous enough that most science agencies are arriving at or above their budgets before sequestration in real dollars. A major exception is the National Science Foundation (NSF), which received a modest 1.6 percent increase this year. NSF has been on a different budget track than the other science agencies. It saw stronger growth through the sequestration years but received a middling increase. The changes in Appropriations Committee leadership, as well as ongoing disputes between the grant -making agency and key House policymakers over the scientific peer review process and funding levels for geosciences and social sciences, may be contributing to NSF’s unfavorable position.

Not all missions and programs within the science agencies will see spending increases in 2016. The DOE Office of Science’s 5.5 percent spending boost includes a 14.6 percent increase for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, in part to develop next-generation exascale supercomputing platforms. The Fusion Energy Sciences program, on the other hand, is seeing a 6.3 percent funding cut this year. Key Senate appropriators have expressed skepticism about fusion energy, and the 2016 spending bill’s guidance restricts the amount of funding DOE may allocate to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a fusion energy facility under construction in France that is testing the feasibility of fusion as an energy source. The $115 million cap for the United States' contribution to ITER this year is significantly less than the $150 million that DOE funded ITER in fiscal year 2015 or the $199.5 million it funded the project in fiscal year 2014.

How did the science agencies turn around their funding this year, and will the increased support have legs beyond 2016?

The driving force behind recent budget cuts to R&D is federal budget sequestration. History suggests that overall discretionary spending and R&D spending tend to move in tandem. According to budget analysts Matt Hourihan and David Parkes at AAAS, “Individual agencies may fare better or worse in different years, but the discretionary budget is essentially the center of gravity around which science agencies cluster, fiscally speaking.” Put simply, sequestration relief, such as the $80 billion in additional spending last year’s budget agreement provides in 2016 and 2017, permits Congress to allocate more dollars to science.

In scanning the federal environment for prognostications about upcoming decades, there is both bad and good news for the scientific community. The bad news is that concerns about the nation’s debt, which drive the politics of budget sequestration, are unlikely to go away. The Congressional Budget Office projects national debt will rise from 75 to 100 percent of GDP by 2040, and the debt issue is not going to evaporate without major changes in national tax or spending policies.

Also, in 2017 Congress is unlikely to have an appetite for the magnitude of funding increases for science agencies it did in 2016. Under last year’s budget agreement, discretionary spending increased 5.5 percent, but the same agreement sets the discretionary spending cap at about flat in 2017, meaning lawmakers have the same- size pot of money to spend in 2017 as they did in 2016.

In good news, sequestration and its austere spending caps will end in 2021. There is a sense among policymakers that the departments and agencies that rely on discretionary spending have paid their dues through sequestration, and Congress has been eager to provide budget relief when it can find spending offsets.

In addition, the federal funding of science and basic research in particular commands bipartisan and sometimes glowing support from key policymakers. President Obama has highlighted the importance of scientific discovery in this month’s and prior State of the Union addresses. Even as some individual programs (and even grants) within the science agencies are singled out for cuts or elimination by policymakers, key committee chairs and ranking members continue to speak in inspirational words about the science agencies and the work of American science. They are still promising to deliver more support - for NASA, DOE Office of Science, NSF, NIH, and beyond.