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Research Funding

US debt deal dims science funding hopes

Flat budgets for federal research are likely through 2025

by Britt E. Erickson
June 1, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 18

President Joe Biden and House speaker Kevin McCarthy at the White House.
Credit: Associated Press
President Joe Biden and Representative Kevin McCarthy agreed to raise the US debt limit in exchange for limits on spending, including funding for scientific R&D.

Scientific research in the US faces an uphill battle for new funding under an agreement reached between President Joe Biden and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the speaker of the House of Representatives, to raise the US debt limit. The deal prevents the US government from defaulting on its loans until Jan. 1, 2025, but it dampens prospects that federal agencies will get increases in the next 2 years to support science and technology initiatives.

The House voted in favor of the deal on May 31, sending the legislation to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before the June 5 deadline to increase the government’s borrowing ability.

The deal essentially freezes nondefense discretionary spending, which includes funding for scientific R&D, at current levels for fiscal 2024 and allows a 1% increase for fiscal 2025. But when inflation is factored in, budgets will actually decrease. Any increases for science would have to be offset by cuts to other domestic programs.

Congress will also have to pass appropriations bills on time. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1. If the process is not completed by Jan. 1, an across-the-board cut of 1% will be made.

Appropriators might have some room to maneuver, but it will certainly make it harder to invest in the ways envisioned by CHIPS and Science.
Matt Hourihan, associate director of R&D and advanced industry, Federation of American Scientists

The deal is particularly bad news for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Congress authorized, but has yet to appropriate, big funding increases—​$170 billion over 5 years—​for those agencies under the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act in 2022. The legislation aims to boost the global competitiveness of US research and promote domestic manufacturing.

The CHIPS and Science Act provided more than $50 billion to beef up semiconductor research and manufacturing in the US to reduce dependence on computer chips made in countries that are a national security concern. Congress appropriated that money, but not the $170 billion for R&D at federal agencies.

The NSF had hoped to see its budget rise 19% in fiscal 2024 to $11.3 billion, in line with the president’s proposal released in March. The agency’s current budget is about $9.5 billion. The NSF .

was counting on an increase to support its new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, which aims to translate research results into technologies and products.

The DOE’s Office of Science hoped for a 9% increase for 2024 to help fund projects on quantum information, clean energy, and climate science. NIST was looking for extra money to support advanced manufacturing, public-private manufacturing partnerships, and growing the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce.

“If we want to be the leading tech economy in the world, it is a really bad time to cut down on generating that next-​generation STEM workforce,” NIST director Laurie Locascio told lawmakers during a May 10 hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Funding for such efforts will have to be wrangled away from other programs under the debt limit deal.

“Appropriators might have some room to maneuver, but it will certainly make it harder to invest in the ways envisioned by CHIPS and Science,” says Matt Hourihan, associate director of R&D and advanced industry at the Federation of American Scientists.

If federal agencies do not get an increase in fiscal 2024, they will face a $7 billion gap between what Congress authorized under the CHIPS and Science Act and what it appropriated, Hourihan says.

Support for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a 1-year-old initiative to advance innovative medicine and early detection of disease, is also in question. ARPA-H, which is separate from the National Institutes of Health, is currently funded at $1.5 billion. Biden proposed increasing ARPA-H’s budget to $2.5 billion for 2024, but it is now unclear how it will get the extra $1 billion.

Although the outlook for increases in funding for scientific R&D is grim, “the deal is definitely not as tough as it could have been,” Hourihan says. A plan floated by Rep. McCarthy in April would have significantly slashed agency budgets for 2024.

Agency leaders told lawmakers at budget hearings that such cuts would be devastating. “This is not the time that we should slow down anything,” NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said.

“It would be a huge blow to competitiveness just as we have this momentum to go forward,” DOE undersecretary Geraldine Richmond said.


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