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Budget Blues

President Obama’s 2015 R&D budget request doesn’t keep up with inflation

by Government & Policy Department
March 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 12


Tree diagram shows proportional categories of proposed R&D funding for the 2015 fiscal year.
Credit: White House of Management & Budget
Defense work accounts for nearly half of the proposed federal R&D funding for fiscal 2015. NOTE: Budgets for R&D activities only. a Among the agencies included in “Other” are the Smithsonian and the Departments of Education, Interior, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs. SOURCE: White House Office of Management & Budget

Despite the tough fiscal times, many scientists and research advocates were hoping that President Barack Obama’s support of science and technology in speeches and previous budgets would translate into proposed funding increases for fiscal 2015. But they were disappointed when the President rolled out his 2015 federal budget request earlier this month.

Credit: Newscom
Photo of the budget.
Credit: Newscom

Overall the President is requesting a meager 1.2% increase for federal R&D funding to $135 billion in 2015, below the current rate of inflation of 1.7%. Within that amount, proposed funding for basic research is actually down 1.0%, to $32.1 billion.

Likewise, the President’s 2015 request is essentially flat for most individual research agency budgets. For example, at the Department of Defense, the largest U.S. science funder, the request for overall R&D is up slightly, but its basic and applied research portfolio is down 5.7% to $11.5 billion in 2015. And at the National Science Foundation, funding is slated to be flat, with the share of the money it spends to support grants down by about 0.5%. Only a few agencies—the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards & Technology, for example—are tagged for increases that are above the current level of inflation.

The year’s nearly flat budget request was almost inevitable after the Administration agreed to a bipartisan budget deal that set spending caps for the entire federal budget for fiscal 2014 and 2015. That agreement, which Congress passed and the President signed, rolled back across-the-board budget cuts, called sequestration, but set budget caps that were only slightly higher for those years.

In an acknowledgment of the tight fiscal times, the President pointed out when he released the budget request on March 4 that it is not really about the numbers. Congress is unlikely to pass the budget as proposed anyway. The budget is about showing the Administration’s priorities, which include energy, manufacturing, and science education.

But because presidential budget requests have become more aspirational than realistic in recent years, the science community was clearly disappointed with the low targets. “It is impossible to predict what today’s investment in research will yield, but it is certain that without strong and consistent federal support for basic scientific research, we will miss out on the next generation of life-changing and job-creating discoveries,” says Jon Pyatt, president of the Science Coalition, a research advocacy group.

The best that White House science adviser John P. Holdren could say about the proposed budget was that it could have been worse. “Clearly this budget reflects a lot of tough choices,” he says. “Those of us in the science and technology community would prefer a budget which boosted everything.”

The White House made an attempt to get around the spending cap with what is essentially an add-on budget, called the Opportunity, Growth & Security Initiative (OGSI). OGSI provides $56 billion—including $5.3 billion for R&D—for programs that the Administration supports but that wouldn’t fit into the primary budget request. But Congress has made it clear that it has no intention of passing this additional proposed initiative.

The President’s fiscal 2015 budget request is now with Congress, where it will be divided into 12 appropriations bills. The funding numbers that emerge after hearings and negotiations will likely be different from those originally proposed by the Administration. The whole process is supposed to be completed and the bills signed by the President by Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2014.

Jump to Topics:
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health & Human Services
- National Science Foundation
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Defense
- Department of Homeland Security
- National Aeronautics & Space Administration
- Department of Agriculture



Department of Energy

President Obama is requesting $27.9 billion, 2.6% above 2014 levels, for the Department of Energy. Science and energy-related programs drew $9.8 billion of the proposed total; the rest is slated for environmental cleanup and management efforts at DOE sites ($6.2 billion) and nuclear weapons security ($11.9 billion).

Some $5.1 billion is proposed for the DOE Office of Science, a 0.9% increase over last year. Basic energy science levels equate to a 5.5% increase over last year to $1.8 billion, and biological and environmental research gets a 3.0% increase to $628 million. Taking hits under the proposal would be fusion energy R&D, workforce development programs, and science lab infrastructure programs.

Earmarked for a big boost are energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, which would receive a 21.9% increase, taking them to $2.3 billion for next year. The largest of those programs, vehicle technologies, is proposed at $359 million, a 23.9% increase. Advanced manufacturing comes in at $305 million, a 69.1% increase over last year, and solar energy gets $282 million, 9.8% more than last year’s enacted levels. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is also slated for a 16.1% increase, for a total of $325 million in 2015.

DOE proposes some $1 billion to accelerate R&D and deploy new high-impact clean energy technologies under OGSI. Specifically, ARPA-E would receive $25 million; electricity grid modernization, $200 million; energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, $714 million; and electricity delivery and reliability programs, $100 million.


Department of Health & Human Services

Under President Obama’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget request, the Department of Health & Human Services would receive $1.0 trillion in taxpayer money, an increase of 6.0% over 2014. About $31.1 billion would be spent on R&D, an increase of just 0.5% from 2014.

The National Institutes of Health would receive the bulk of those R&D funds. NIH is slated to get $30.4 billion in 2015, an increase of $211 million, or 0.7%, compared with 2014. However, if Congress passes OGSI, which is not expected, NIH would get an additional boost of $970 million.

Proponents of biomedical research are disappointed with the proposed 2015 budget, which “falls short of reversing the damage done by a decade of flat funding and recent cuts from sequestration,” says the advocacy group United for Medical Research.

Nonetheless, the small increase for NIH in 2015 would support 9,326 research project grants, an increase of 3.7% compared with 2014. Most of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers would see flat budgets, but a few priority programs would see significant increases.

NIH’s cross-agency effort to map the human brain, called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, would receive $100 million, up 66.7% compared with 2014. Likewise, NIH’s Cures Acceleration Network (CAN), which focuses on improving the drug development pathway, would get $30 million, an increase of 200% compared with 2014.

The Common Fund, which supports cross-institute research, would receive $583 million, an increase of 9.4%. NIH would use that money to launch a $30 million program focused on cutting-edge research similar to that funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Elsewhere within HHS, an extra $215 million would go toward developing biodefense countermeasures under the President’s request. Project BioShield would get a $160 million boost for a total budget of $415 million. The program supports projects such as the development of chemical antidotes and vaccines. The rest of the boost for biodefense countermeasures would be spent on a different program to develop a universal flu vaccine and pandemic influenza preparedness, bringing the total investment in pandemic influenza to $170 million.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention would invest $30 million in a new program to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

The Food & Drug Administration would receive an additional $263 million for food safety in 2015, for a total of $1.5 billion, which falls outside HHS’s R&D budget. Of the increase, $255 million would come from new industry-paid user fees. FDA would also receive an additional $25 million to expand its oversight of pharmacy compounding to prevent crises such as the fungal meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated medicine in 2012.


National Science Foundation

Fiscal 2015 may be a challenging year for the National Science Foundation, which faces one of the rare times in recent years when its proposed budget will not keep up with inflation. The Administration’s request of $7.3 billion in fiscal 2015 is up just 1.2% from 2014.

NSF is slated to spend $5.8 billion on grants, essentially flat from 2014. Despite a lack of proposed new funds, the number of awards made is projected to go up slightly to 11,400 in 2015, from 11,300 in 2014.

Science education is the big winner in the proposed NSF budget, with a requested increase of 5.1% from 2014 to $890 million in 2015.

The biggest boost is for the Improving Undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Education program, which is up 33.7% to $99 million.

Students receiving NSF Graduate Research Fellowships will get a raise under the President’s proposed budget to $34,000 from $32,000 per year. Overall, the program is slated for an 11.1% increase to $167 million for 2015. The agency plans to award 2,000 fellowships, the same number as it will fund in 2014.

NSF’s research traineeships would also receive more funding under the request, up 7.8% to $28 million. The $7 million in new money will specifically support traineeships that are in innovative areas or have innovative new designs.

Funding for the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate, which supports most of the agency’s chemistry research, is essentially flat under the President’s proposal, down 0.3% to $1.3 billion in 2015. Although that may be disappointing, MPS Director F. Fleming Crim says, “This is reality, and what we need to do is work within reality to support the best science we can.”

NSF’s Chemistry Division is up by 0.6% to a proposed $237 million in 2015. Funding for the Centers for Chemical Innovation program accounts for a large amount of the increase, with a request that’s up 9.4% to $34 million in 2015.

One area that is increasing significantly for NSF is Agency Operations & Award Management, which is up by 13.5% to $338 million in fiscal 2015. Those increases are primarily to help the agency prepare to move into a new building in Alexandria, Va., in 2016.



Environmental Protection Agency

President Obama is asking Congress to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s appropriation for 2015 by nearly 4% compared with 2014. This would reduce the agency’s current funding of $8.2 billion to $7.9 billion.

Those funding cuts wouldn’t be shared equally across the agency; some programs would see increases in 2015 under the President’s plan. For instance, science and technology efforts at the agency would see a slight rise from $759 million in 2014 to $764 million in 2015.

EPA’s efforts to regulate commercial chemicals and pesticides would also get a boost of almost 7%, increasing from $630 million in 2014 to $673 million in the 2015 proposal. EPA budget documents say the agency would use this extra money in part for safety reviews of substances. It would also finish a project, started in 2010, to scrutinize the 22,000 confidential business information claims in health and safety studies that commercial chemical makers have submitted to EPA. The agency is challenging many of these claims, including those protecting chemical identities of the compounds involved in the studies.

EPA’s 2015 budget plan includes almost $28 million for its program to prevent chemical accidents. This would represent an increase of more than $12 million over the 2014 funding level. This money would go, in part, to inspections of what EPA considers high-risk chemical facilities and to implementation of the President’s August 2013 executive order on chemical safety.


Department of Commerce

Science at the Department of Commerce is one of the few winners in President Obama’s proposed 2015 budget. R&D funding for both NIST and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration—the agency’s primary R&D entities—would increase by levels above the current rate of inflation.

At NIST, the request of $900 million is up 5.9% in 2015 from $850 million in 2014. The agency’s science programs account for most of the proposed increase. They are up 4.5% to $680 million, including increases for cybersecurity, synthetic biology, materials science, and forensic science research.

In keeping with the Administration’s priorities, manufacturing at NIST is also slated for a big boost in the proposed budget. The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which helps connect small and medium-sized businesses with technology, would get a $13 million increase in 2015, to $141 million.

NIST is home to the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, and the President’s budget requests $5 million to help it better coordinate new manufacturing innovation institutes. This effort may include as many as 45 institutes under the President’s plan.

NOAA is proposed to get a 3.2% increase to $5.5 billion in 2015. Of that amount, $2.0 billion is tagged to help upgrade NOAA’s weather satellites, but an increase is also requested for ocean and conservation research.

Outside the Commerce Department’s R&D efforts, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) would receive $3.4 billion in funding in 2015, a 13.9% increase over its 2014 budget.

PTO’s budget is set by Congress but its funding comes entirely from the fees it collects, primarily from patent applicants and owners. Consequently, any actual budget increase would depend on an increase in fee revenue.

If PTO collects more than $3.4 billion, the excess would be placed in a reserve fund and “shall remain available until expended” by PTO, according to a Commerce Department budget document. The provision allows the office to keep all of its fees and prevents Congress from diverting PTO revenue to other government programs as it has often done in the past.


Department of Defense

At the Department of Defense, the largest federal R&D funder by far, proposed spending in the President’s budget request for 2015 is up 0.9% from $63.9 billion in 2014 to a proposed $64.4 billion in 2015.

That isn’t true for basic R&D (also known by the categories 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3). Proposed funding in this area would go down 5.7% to $11.5 billion in 2015 under the President’s request. Increases for 2015 are primarily for the stage in which research is turned into prototypes, which would increase 5.7% to $12.3 billion under the President’s plan.

“We are trying to maintain support for science and technology as much as possible, even as overall defense spending decreases,” says Patricia Falcone, associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

The President’s requested funding for the much-heralded DARPA is up 4.7% to $2.9 billion in 2015.


Department of Homeland Security

The President’s blueprint for government spending in 2015 includes $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security’s main research arm, the Science & Technology Directorate. The requested amount means a cut of 8.3% for S&T, down from $1.2 billion in 2014, reflecting the cuts felt agencywide.

The proposed cutbacks include a 20.6% decrease in S&T’s laboratory facilities account, from $547 million in fiscal 2014 to $435 million in fiscal 2015.

Notably, the White House is seeking $300 million to continue work on the National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility, which is under construction on the campus of Kansas State University. Research at the lab will focus on developing technologies to protect the food supply from deadly diseases and viruses that could be unleashed on livestock.

The new facility will replace the 1950s-era Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is located off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. No date has been announced for the start of operations.


National Aeronautics & Space Administration

The President is requesting $17.5 billion for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration in fiscal 2015, down 1.1% from 2014. Of this amount, $11.6 billion would support R&D.

Although NASA’s requested budget is down, the agency’s head maintains there is some good news. “The President’s funding plan for America’s space program reaffirms the path we are on and will keep us moving forward—pushing farther in the solar system and leading the world in a new era of exploration,” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. said when rolling out the budget.


For human exploration operations, the President provides $9.9 billion, flat from 2014. It supports the agency’s stepping-stone approach to sending humans to Mars: doing research on the space station, testing technology on the moon, and exploring an asteroid before sending a crew to the Red Planet. The budget also notes that the space station will remain operational until 2024.

The request slates $5.0 billion for science programs, a drop of 3.5%. The funds will support planetary science and the James Webb Space Telescope.


Department Of Agriculture

Agricultural research would get a small boost under the President’s proposed 2015 budget. The Department of Agriculture would receive a total of $3.2 billion for R&D, an increase of $82 million, or 2.6%, compared with 2014.

The National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), which funds extramural research, would see its budget rise to $1.5 billion, an increase of $68 million, or 4.8%, compared with 2014. Funding for NIFA’s primary competitive research grants program, the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative, would rise to $325 million, an increase of $9 million, or 2.8%, compared with 2014. A chunk of that money would go toward aiding understanding of the effects of biomass production on land and water resources and identifying the socioeconomic impacts of biofuels in rural communities.

NIFA’s budget also includes $75 million to create three new public-private innovation institutes, each funded by $25 million. The institutes would engage industry, leverage funding, and handle technology transfer. One institute would be focused on biomanufacturing and the development of biobased products. Another would be dedicated to understanding pollinator health. And the third would support research on antimicrobial resistance.

The Agricultural Research Service, which conducts in-house research in agricultural sciences, would see its 2015 budget fall to $1.1 billion, a decrease of $18 million, or 1.6%, compared with 2014. Research priorities include the effects of climate change on agriculture, honeybee colony collapse disorder, and the development of genetic resources and tools to increase agricultural resiliency and food production.

Agricultural statistics would rise under the proposed 2015 budget. The National Agricultural Statistics Service would receive $179 million, an increase of $18 million, or 11.2%, compared with 2014. The Economic Research Service, the agency that provides economic and other social science information about agriculture, would also see its budget go up. The proposed 2015 budget requests $83 million, an increase of $5 million, or 6.4%, compared with 2014.

Jump to Topics:
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health & Human Services
- National Science Foundation
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Defense
- Department of Homeland Security
- National Aeronautics & Space Administration
- Department of Agriculture


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