Science Policy in 2015: Year in Review

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Publication date: 
12 January 2016

In 2015, the scientific community faced new challenges in a fractious federal landscape and responded by stepping up its policy engagement and advocacy. While some federal science agencies faced high levels of scrutiny from Congress most received significant budget increases in FY 2016.

The biggest story in science policy in 2015 was the unexpectedly large boosts in science funding in Congress’ annual spending bill for FY 2016, some of which matched or exceeded the President’s budget request and even requests from the scientific community. The outlier to the major spending increases for the science agencies was the National Science Foundation (NSF), which received a more modest increase of 1.6 percent. No major science agency or office received a funding cut in FY 2016.

Robust spending increases for science in FY 2016 followed the enactment of a bipartisan budget law that rolled back $80 billion in sequestration in FY 2016 and 2017. The scientific community paired budget relief with stepped up advocacy and communications efforts, focused on highlighting the links between federal investments in scientific research and the nation’s economic prosperity and security. Examples include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Closing the Innovation Deficit initiative and the Innovation: An American Imperative initiative.

Other major stories in science policy in 2015 included:

  • Renewed focus on NASA’s solar system and other deep space exploration missions, especially a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s;
  • Contributions of nuclear physics to U.S. negotiations on the Iran nuclear agreement;
  • Efforts in the House to target the geosciences (and climate science, in particular) and social sciences for funding restrictions and cuts;
  • Tensions between Congress and NSF over the peer review process, including a heated debate about whether a proposal must be in the “national interest” as a prerequisite for being funded;
  • Emphasis on improving technology transfer from universities and laboratories to market, especially at the Department of Energy (DOE) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA);
  • Expansion of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs, including through two new laws;
  • Examination of the management of large NSF and DOE scientific facilities;
  • Increased attention at high levels of government and in the scientific community to the principle of reproducibility of scientific results; and
  • Renewed scrutiny of climate science in the lead up to the Paris international climate change negotiations.

Below is a review of selected developments covered in FYI in 2015, categorized by the month of the issue date. See the 2015 FYI archive for more coverage.



  • White House: In his State of the Union address, President Obama highlights the business and innovation value of American science and technology, praises a re-energized space program focused on sending American astronauts to Mars, and channels the consensus science on global climate change.
  • White House: The President establishes the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to enhance coordination of Arctic policies across all government and non-government sectors.
  • Climate Change: The Senate splits down the middle in a floor vote to affirm that climate change is real and has significant contributions from human activities.
  • Education: The Senate begins consideration of a bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind K-12 education law.
  • NIST/NOAA/DOE: The House passes three science bills to help reduce the impact of windstorms on buildings and infrastructure, modernize the U.S. tsunami warning system, and promote research into the effects of low dose radiation on humans, respectively.



  • White House/Budget: The president submits his FY 2016 budget request to Congress seeking an increase of 5.5 percent in overall federal R&D, including increases of that magnitude for NSF and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science.
  • NASA: The House passes by voice vote a bill to set program and policy direction for NASA and its mission directorates in 2015.
  • NOAA: The House Science Committee holds a hearing on the potential for a gap in data from the nation’s polar and geostationary weather satellites.
  • DOE Budget: Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz testifies before the House Science Committee on the President’s FY 2016 budget.
  • Public Opinion: A Pew Research Center and American Association for the Advancement of Science survey finds broad public support for federal funding of basic scientific research.



  • DOE Budget: The Secretary of Energy returns to Capitol Hill to testify before a key House appropriations subcommittee.
  • Budget: Other House and Senate appropriations subcommittees hold hearings on the President’s FY 2016 budget request, including for NOAA and NIST, NOAA, NIH, NASA, USGS, NNSA, NSF, and the DOE Office of Science.
  • NSF: Director of NSF France Cordova and National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu testify before the House Science Committee on NSF’s new transparency and accountability rules for grants and awards.
  • NOAA: The House Science Committee signs off on bipartisan weather research legislation to improve technology transfer and research-to-operations at NOAA.



  • NASA: The House Subcommittee on Space holds a hearing on the progress and future challenges of the James Webb Space Telescope.
  • DOD: The House Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee holds a hearing on Department of Defense science and technology programs.
  • NASA Budget: A key Senate appropriations subcommittee holds a hearing on the President’s FY 2016 budget request for NASA.
  • DOE Budget: The House Appropriations Committee approves its draft of the annual spending bill that funds the DOE Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The White House threatens a veto, claiming the spending bill would underfund critical energy investments.
  • Budget: The Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget issues a statement of concern that funding reductions under the FY 2016 House Republican spending plan would result in deep cuts to science and innovation.
  • NSF/NIST/DOE: The House Science Committee signs off on the controversial “America COMPETES Act” to provide policy direction to NSF, NIST, and the DOE Office of Science. The legislation would also cut funding authorized for the geosciences and social sciences at NSF and require NSF to justify that each grant or award is within the “national interest.”
  • NASA: The House Science Committee approves a bill, along party lines, that would provide policy and program direction to NASA and its mission directorates for 2016 and 2017 and cut funding authorized for the earth sciences.  The NASA Administrator and the President’s science advisor express deep concerns.



  • DOE Budget: The House passes the FY 2016 DOE spending bill, which the White House has earlier threatened to veto.
  • DOD Budget: The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense holds a hearing, in which the Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall warns of declining U.S. defense technological superiority and urges a permanent repeal of federal budget sequestration.
  • NASA/NSF/NOAA/NIST Budget: A House appropriations subcommittee approves its draft of the FY 2016 spending bill for NASA, NSF, NOAA and NIST.
  • NSF/NIST/DOE: The White House threatens to veto the House’s “America COMPETES Act,”’ which has drawn widespread opposition from scientific societies and other leading organizations in the scientific and university communities. Two days later, the House passes the controversial legislation.
  • DOE Budget: The Senate Appropriations Committee approves its draft of the FY 2016 spending bill for the DOE Office of Science and NNSA.



  • White House/DOE: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) hears an update from the Secretary of Energy on the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review, released in April.
  • Advocacy: A Massachusetts Institute of Technology committee releases a report on declining investments in basic research and draws attention to the so-called innovation deficit.
  • NASA/NSF/NOAA/NIST Budget: The House passes its FY 2016 spending bill for NASA, NIST, NOAA and NSF.
  • DOE: The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on research into new nuclear fission and fusion technologies.



  • NOAA: The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approves two bipartisan bills that aim to improve NOAA weather research, satellites, and services.
  • NSF/NIST: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee begins bipartisan work on the “America COMPETES Act,” emphasizing stakeholder consultations and outreach.
  • Budget: The White House releases the Administration’s science and technology budget priorities for FY 2017.
  • NASA: The House Subcommittee on Space holds a hearing to examine a number of operational challenges facing the International Space Station.
  • DOE: The House Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing revealing strong congressional support for DOE‘s Energy Innovation Hubs.
  • White House/NASA: PCAST hears an update from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the vision for next-generation human space exploration.
  • NOAA: The House Subcommittee on the Environment invites NOAA Deputy Administrator Manson Brown to a hearing to explore the weather agency’s options for better supporting and utilizing commercial weather data for weather forecasts.



  • NASA: NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld testifies before the House Science Committee about the value of NASA’s planetary sciences missions.
  • NRC: The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy convenes a hearing to examine the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s role in advancing nuclear reactor research and development.
  • DOE/NSF: President Obama nominates Cherry Murray to be Director of the DOE Office of Science and Richard Buckius to be Deputy Director of NSF.



  • DOE: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approves a major energy policy bill that includes a number of science provisions.
  • DOE: The Secretary of Energy highlights the role that nuclear science and technology played in informing the negotiations with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.
  • National Academies/NASA: The National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board completes a review of the four most recent space sciences decadal surveys.
  • National Academies/NSF: The National Academies’ Polar Research Board releases a report to provide a decadal-scale vision for NSF’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research programs.
  • DOE: DOE releases its second Quadrennial Technology Review.
  • NOAA/NASA: The House Science Committee examines vulnerabilities in and threats to the nation’s electric grid, with a focus on the hazards of space weather.



  • NASA: The House Science Committee holds a hearing on NASA’s astrobiology program and the search for life beyond Earth in the next decade, including testimony from NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan.
  • NSF/Education: President Obama signs the STEM Education Act of 2015 into law, expanding a key NSF scholarship program and boosting research in informal STEM education at NSF.
  • Education: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announces plans to step down by the end of the year, with Deputy Secretary of Education John King, Jr. selected to become director in an acting capacity for the foreseeable future.
  • National Academies: The National Academy of Sciences releases a report on the impact of regulatory burden on the conduct of research.
  • NASA: The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space holds a hearing on funding for deep space exploration that identified inadequate budgets as the primary obstacle to NASA’s progress.
  • NSF: Following heated debate on the role that the “national interest” and other political considerations ought to play in the NSF’s funding science, the House Science Committee approves Chairman Lamar Smith’s “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.”
  • Budget: The president and congressional leaders negotiate and enact a major bipartisan budget agreement to provide for an $80 billion increase in discretionary spending over the next two years.



  • NOAA/Climate Change: House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and NOAA spar over whether the agency must release documents related to a major climate science study led by the agency that was released earlier in the year.
  • Minerals/DOI: The House passes legislation to streamline the federal approval process for the development of minerals on federal lands.
  • DOE/DOI: The Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell jointly announce the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
  • NASA: NASA releases its Journey to Mars report, offering a unifying vision to send humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s.



  • DOD: The President signs the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, which includes a number of provisions supporting scientific research and collaboration.
  • Education: President Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which includes a number of new program and funding streams for K-12 STEM education.
  • Budget: Congress passes and the President signs a massive year-end spending bill that includes major funding increases for most of the science agencies and offices in FY 2016.
  • DOE/DOD: The Senate confirms Cherry Murray as the Director of the DOE Office of Science and Stephen Welby as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.



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