"Skinny Budget" vs. Congress' Budget
The United States Congress has finally agreed on a budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2017. Lawmakers will vote on the budget this week, and assuming President Trump signs it as expected, it will end the spending freeze that has been in place at most agencies for the past seven months, avert a government shutdown, and allow new programs to start.
The overall thrust of the budget avoids most of the major cuts to federal science agencies that were initially laid out in the “skinny budget” requested by the Trump administration in March. Many members of Congress appear ready to support science programs and agencies despite opposition from the executive branch and pockets within Congress.
The 5 percent increase in research and development (R&D) in this year's budget, for example, may signal a more favorable outlook for 2018, but the generally combative climate in Washington from all sides probably lends itself to more conservative measures of optimism.
The Bottom Line
Here are the basic numbers for FY2017. Total R&D spending will increase to $155.8 billion, according to an analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This includes all basic and applied science expenditures as well as facility construction and new technology development, with $72.9 billion for civilian projects and $82.9 billion for military activities.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) received an increase of $2 billion, the second increase in as many years after more than a decade of no growth and a stark contrast to the “skinny budget,” which would have cut NIH's budget by more than $1 billion. This 6.2 percent increase to $34 billion includes a $352 million boost to the 21st Century Cures Act, a biomedical innovation measure that became law in December 2016. That measure's 10-year reserve of money is not subject to the annual appropriations process and is earmarked for specific initiatives at NIH. Therefore, the actual boost to the NIH is more modest, only $1.6 billion. The relief felt by supporters of biomedical research is likely to be short-lived, however, as the Trump administration hopes to cut the NIH budget by $5.8 billion, or 18 percent, for FY2018, which begins on October 1.
The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget was trimmed by about one percent, or $81 million, to $8.06 billion, a move that runs contrary to the Trump administration's requests for major cuts to ecosystem protection and research programs. Nevertheless, the science and technology programs of the EPA did sustain a 3.8 percent cut of $28 million to reach a budget of $707 million. Compared to the White House's proposed $230 million in cuts — including $48 in climate-related research, $49 million in lake restoration, and $30 million in superfund cleanup — this was a modest hit. Congress chose to keep climate and air research and the Great Lakes program flat, while boosting superfund cleanups by $7.5 million.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be cut by 1 percent, dropping to $5.7 billion. However, this cut does not target the critical nationwide climate change research of the agency's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. That office's budget actually increases under this proposal, as does the Sea Grant research program and marine aquaculture. The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service takes a hit in the budget, dropping by 6 percent from $2.3 billion to $2.2 billion.
The revised budget is a mixed bag for the Department of Energy (DOE). Despite its role as the single largest funder of physical sciences in the U.S., funding for the DOE's Office of Science sees just an 0.8 percent increase to $5.392 billion.
Housed within the Office of Science are six research programs. Advanced scientific computing research, which includes supercomputing projects, gets an increase of 4.2 percent, and high energy physics increases by 3.8 percent. Basic energy sciences — which covers chemistry, condensed matter physics, material science, and most large user facilities of the DOE — gets a 1.2 percent increase, and both nuclear physics and biological and environmental research are almost flat, each increasing by less than one percent. The fusion energy sciences program takes a major hit, losing 13.2 percent of its budget.
Likely breathing a sigh of relief right now are those working under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The agency is tasked with quickly developing promising research ideas into usable technologies, and last week, the DOE froze all ARPA-E grants and placed a gag order on program managers, leaving many researchers in limbo. The Trump administration previously indicated that it wanted to eliminate the ARPA-E altogether in 2018, but Congress' FY2017 budget gives the agency a comfortable 5.2 percent increase to $306 million, a promising sign for FY2018.
The National Science Foundation's (NSF) funding will remain steady, with Congress rejecting an increase requested by the Obama administration and NSF’s own request for additional operating funds so it could move to a new building. The NSF did receive additional funding to build two of the three large facilities it has been ordered to construct, two telescopes and a pair of research vessels. No word on where the agency will get the balance needed to complete all three projects.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) received a 1.9 percent increase to $19.653 billion, which includes an increase of 3.1 percent for its Office of Science. Although the Trump administration proposed defunding NASA's earth science and satellite monitoring projects, which provide climate change data, both are funded in this budget, as are the rest of NASA's missions.
Under Congress' budget, the Smithsonian Institution does not get the increased support for observatories and biodiversity projects requested by the Obama administration, but it does win modestly with an increase of 2.7 percent for its nine research institutions, 19 museums, and the National Zoo.
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) budget remains relatively flat as it has for more than a decade. Its Precision Medicine Initiative receives funding, but less than was requested, and although Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot receives funding under the NIH budget, it receives nothing from the FDA.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will receive less funding than it did in 2016 for its research and advanced manufacturing activities, but more than the House proposed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) receives a 7.1 percent increase to $375 million for its work as one of the main funding sources for basic science in academia, while the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service got a 2.3 percent increase to $1.17 billion.
The bottom line here is that while optimism may be warranted, that optimism should be tempered with caution. It is unlikely that the assault on funding for science has passed, and it is appropriate to stay vigilant on this issue. This is especially true given the holistic effect of scientific research on our country and the world.
Although the goal of funding scientific research is broadly to expand our of understanding the world and how we can thrive within it, this work also has a very individual impact, supporting the education of youth, the training of highly skilled workers in STEM industries, and owners of a wide range of businesses. A vast array of people are hurt when sponsored research projects are cut, not to mention what this lack of information does to our planet and our knowledge base more generally.