Science Policy & Funding News

Federal Spending Act Boosts Funding for Many Science Agencies

Congressional priorities reflected in the legislation differed sharply from the administration’s.

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A $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law this past Friday reverses the administration’s plans to sharply cut funding for federal science agencies and provides increases for many of them through the end of fiscal year (FY) 2018 on 30 September.

NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Department of Energy (DOE) all came out winners in the legislation. The budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held steady despite the administration’s request for a 29% cut to the agency’s budget (see Table 1).

“Thankfully, this spending package is a wholesale rejection of the president’s reckless budget request,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “The role that our science agencies play in driving the economy, keeping our nation competitive, and protecting the environment and public health is far too important for political games.”

The favorable science budgets are due to advocacy efforts by scientists and others and to Congress having a better understanding than the administration about the importance of science programs, according to Yogin Kothari, Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Kothari told Eos that the administration proposed its budget from the perspective of just wanting to cut costs and not looking at the impacts of federal agency programs on communities across the country. “Congress, which clearly has been doing this [budgeting] for a long time and is connected with their constituents on a day to day basis, understands the importance of a lot of these programs that were ultimately either fully funded or even given modest or substantial increases,” he said.

Table 1. FY 2018 Omnibus Budget for Selected Earth and Space Science Agencies and Departmentsa
FY 2017 Omnibusb President’s FY 2018  Budget Requestb FY 2018 Omnibusb Change from FY 2017 to FY 2018 Omnibusb Percentage Change FY 2017 to FY 2018 Omnibus
NOAA 5,675 4,775 5,827 152 2.7
NASA 19,653 19,052 20,736 1,083 5.5
NSF 7,472 6,653 7,767 295 4.0
EPA 8,058 5,700 8,058 0 0.0
USGS 1,085 922 1,148 63 5.8
DOE Office of Science 5,392 4,472 6,260 868 16.1
DOE ARPA-Ec 306 20 353 47 15.5

aSource: “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018.”
bValues reported in millions of U.S. dollars, rounded to the nearest million.
cARPA-E = Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy.

NASA Planetary Science Gets Big Boost

Within the newly signed spending bill, NASA receives $6.62 billion for science, a 6.9% increase compared to the FY 2017 omnibus bill, which was the most recently enacted spending bill prior to this new one.  The new omnibus spending bill provides $2.23 billion for planetary science (up 20.8%), including $595 million for the Europa mission and $660 million for Mars missions. Although NASA’s Earth science funding level remains flat at $1.92 billion, the spending agreement specifically includes funding for four of the five Earth science missions zeroed out in the administration’s FY 2018 and FY 2019 budget requests; NASA had already canceled the Radiation Budget Instrument. Also funded are the agency’s Office of Education and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), both of which the administration wanted to cancel.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, said the legislation helps “to restore the agency to the glory days of Apollo.”

Increases for NOAA, USGS, and DOE, with EPA Flat

NOAA, which receives a slight overall increase, maintains $158 million for its Climate Research program, $128 million more than the administration’s FY 2018 request. The USGS budget includes $178.6 million (up 23.3% from FY 2017) for its natural hazards program, including $83.4 million for earthquake hazards research and $42.6 million for volcano hazards research.

DOE’s Office of Science receives $6.26 billion (up 16.1%), and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which the Trump administration had budgeted for termination in its FY 2019 budget request, gets $353.3 million (up 15.5%).

Despite the administration’s plans to sharply cut the EPA budget for FY 2018, the legislation holds funding steady while not including any requested funds for “workforce reshaping.” Congressional language states that several key House and Senate committees “do not expect the Agency to consolidate or close any regional offices” in FY 2018.

In Funding NSF, Congress Notes Chinese Competition

An explanatory statement of the House Appropriations Committee noted the significance of the budget increase for NSF, which includes $6.3 billion (up 5%) for research and related activities. “This strong investment in basic research reflects the Congress’ growing concern that China and other competitors are outpacing the United States in terms of research spending, as noted in the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board.” A policy statement that was released by the board on 7 February, and was separate from the Indicators report, specified that “if current trends continue, the National Science Board expects China to pass the United States in R&D [research and development] investments by the end of this year.” The board subsequently produced a one-page flyer on the “Rise of China in Science and Engineering” that reiterated the board’s information about Chinese trends. The flyer was produced in advance of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s 15 March overview hearing about NSF’s FY 2019 budget proposal.

Board chair Maria Zuber told Eos that the statutory purpose of the indicators report is to provide policy makers with a report “on the state of the U.S. science and engineering ecosystem that is based on high-quality, policy-neutral data.” As advisers to the Congress and the president, “the National Science Board felt strongly that it was important to highlight the increased global competition for S&E [science and engineering] leadership revealed by the data,” she explained. “We are very glad that Indicators has proven to be a useful and timely resource for the policymakers who are in a position to address these challenges.”

Rep. Johnson said that responding to competition from China has been a long-standing concern. “While I can’t speak to how much the recent [indicators] report informed NSF’s funding in the omnibus, I’m glad the appropriators are taking the NSB’s [National Science Board] concerns seriously. We on the Science Committee have been talking about China’s rise as an R&D and innovation powerhouse for years,” she told Eos. “We have to have a robust R&D budget to compete in the global arena.”

Looking to the Next Budget Battle

The omnibus bill was better than what many had hoped for, Kothari told Eos. He added, however, that the focus now needs to be on the FY 2019 budget. “The fight is not over. This is going to be an ongoing slog in this administration. So we can celebrate, but we need to keep the momentum going for the 2019 spending bill.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer, with contributions by Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), News Writing and Production Intern

Correction, 28 March 2018: An earlier version of this news article incorrectly alluded to a “7 February addendum” to the Indicators report. This article has been updated to state instead that the National Science Board on that day released a policy statement that was separate from the report.

Citation: Showstack, R., and K. M. S. Cartier (2018), Federal spending act boosts funding for many science agencies, Eos, 99, Published on 26 March 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0