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Science Agencies Hold Their Own

First 2012 spending bill shows support for R&D

by Susan R. Morrissey
December 12, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 50

When Congress passed the first 2012 spending measure last month, it not only set the budget for several key science agencies, but it also signaled legislatures’ belief in the importance of R&D. Most science programs in the spending measure will see either flat or small positive gains in funding, rather than the significant cuts Congress is imposing on nonpriority areas because of the tight economic environment.

“This bipartisan agreement demonstrates the need for sustained federal investments in science that will ensure America remains a world leader in innovation,” Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) said in a statement after passage of the so-called minibus spending bill. He chairs the House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee. While cutting total spending, he said, the package of bills “prioritizes critical investments in our nation’s science agencies.”

Of the 12 appropriations bills Congress must pass to fund the federal government in fiscal 2012, three are combined in the Consolidated & Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012 (H.R. 2112): the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Transportation-HUD appropriations bills. H.R. 2112 passed both chambers of Congress on Nov. 17 and was signed by President Barack Obama a day later. It includes funding for fiscal 2012, which began on Oct. 1, for the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the Food & Drug Administration, as well as for the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. The Commerce Department includes the National Institute of Standards & Technology and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

The budgets set by H.R. 2112 are less than the amounts requested by President Obama, who has emphasized R&D as an important component of economic recovery. Still, “the President remains committed to science and technology as a central element in the nation’s economic recovery and continued global leadership,” says Rick Weiss, director of strategic communications at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. OSTP, he says, will “continue its work to fulfill the President’s promise to restore science to its rightful place.”

The positive budget increases for key science agencies—namely NIST and NSF—are “an indication of the growing awareness within Congress that even with our current budget difficulties, investment in science and technology, and especially basic research, should be a priority as it paves the way for future economic growth,” notes Patrick J. Clemins, R&D budget analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For 2012, he adds, a flat or small increase in budgets indicates that Congress sees a program as important, while increases in the 3–4% range “would approach the classification of a priority.”

The budgets for NIST and NSF—essentially flat and up 2.5% from 2011, respectively—are noteworthy because these agencies are supposed to be on a budget-doubling path over the 10-year period ending in 2017 as part of the America Competes Act. The 2012 budget levels do not keep these agencies on the budget-doubling schedule.

“While the ‘doubling’ track for the science agencies established under the America Competes Act is dead in our current economic environment, it is nonetheless gratifying to see Congress recognize the economic importance of making investments in federal R&D programs,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the American Chemical Society, a strong supporter of the America Competes Act and publisher of C&EN. The concept of doubling is now redefined as “predictable and sustained funding levels” for federal science agencies, he explains. “This will be critically important to ensure continuity of ongoing research that holds promise of addressing some of our nation’s most pressing challenges.”

The Department of Commerce got an overall 2012 budget of $7.8 billion, up 3.0% from 2011, and its science agencies fared well in the spending bill. NOAA will see a 6.7% increase in its budget for a 2012 total of $4.9 billion. That number includes $903 million for National Weather Service operations and $924 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellite program, which will provide continuity of weather forecast data. The spending measure does not, however, fund the proposed NOAA Climate Service, which would supply data to companies, local governments, farmers, and the public about projected changes in climate, such as those in rainfall patterns.

NIST will essentially hold steady in 2012, with a budget of $751 million. Within this budget, however, is an 11.8% increase to $567 million for the institute’s core scientific and technology research. This gain is balanced by cuts to NIST’s construction programs and industrial technical services.

NSF will see a 2.5% budget increase for a total of $7.0 billion in 2012. As it did with NIST, Congress targeted its support to NSF’s core research. Specifically, the act sets the research and related activities budget to support basic research at $5.7 billion, up 2.8% from 2011.

Education and human resources programs at NSF will see a funding drop of 3.7% to $829 million as a result of agency-identified program reductions and terminations. The conference report that accompanied the spending bill did, however, instruct NSF not to reduce the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program and the Math & Science Partnership Program. NSF had proposed reducing funding for these two programs to make room for new activities.

The minibus spending bill directs a 42.7% increase to NSF’s major research equipment and facilities construction account. The $167 million budget is tagged to help the agency make “significant” progress on its current portfolio of projects.

Agricultural R&D will remain essentially flat at $2.5 billion. The funds will allow USDA to maintain its research on critical agriculture problems such as water quality and food safety, including about $1 billion for food safety and inspection programs.

Additionally, the spending bill funds FDA to begin implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Obama signed into law earlier this year. FDA will receive $2.5 billion, a 2.0% increase from 2011. This amount excludes user fees.

Congress reduced NASA’s funding, but provides key support for science programs. Overall, the agency’s 2012 budget will be cut by 3.5% to $17.8 billion. The science programs will receive $5.1 billion, up 3.1% from 2011. This increase includes funding to accommodate the rising cost of developing the James Webb Space Telescope.

Space operations will be reduced by 23.0% to $4.2 billion, in part because of the phaseout of the space shuttle program. Funding for the exploration program will remain nearly flat yet still allow the agency to move forward on the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose crew vehicle and the Space Launch System. In addition, the report accompanying the spending measure directs NASA to develop and report to Congress “a set of science-based exploration goals; a target destination or destinations that will enable the achievement of those goals; a schedule for the proposed attainment of these goals; and a plan for any proposed collaboration with international partners.”

The attached report also restricts NASA and OSTP from engaging with China in bilateral activities unless authorized by Congress. Similar language appeared in the report accompanying 2011 appropriations. OSTP continues to face charges from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) that it violated this 2011 language when it hosted a meeting with Chinese officials in May. The language was added to protect unintended transfer of sensitive technology, data, and other information from the U.S. to China.

OSTP itself is taking a big hit in its budget, which Congress slashed by 31.8% to $4.5 million. “In light of these reductions, OSTP will prioritize existing activities in the areas where it has statutory and executive responsibilities for coordinating federal research programs and developing policies, including [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education, advanced manufacturing, sustainable energy, innovation and entrepreneurship, open government, scientific integrity, and national security,” Weiss tells C&EN.

The verdict is still out on the budgets of other agencies that support R&D—such as the National Institutes of Health and the Departments of Energy and Defense. All federal agencies not included in the minibus continue to operate at 2011 funding levels under a stopgap measure. The measure, which was attached to H.R. 2112, gives Congress until Dec. 16 to finalize the remaining nine appropriations bills, which are expected to be grouped into one omnibus spending package.

“We hope that funding for NIH, DOE’s Office of Science, and DOD research accounts will remain relatively stable for FY12 as well,” Ruskin says.

Once 2012 budgets are set, all eyes will turn to the federal government’s larger deficit-cutting efforts. The failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or supercommittee, to find $1.2 trillion in savings triggers an across-the-board cut—or sequestration—on federal spending in 2013.

“The larger question,” Ruskin says, “is how the sequestration process will affect our key science agencies moving into FY13 and through the next decade.” 


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