House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas; right) and committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) at the markup for H.R. 1806. Credit: Randy Showstack

Within the past 2 weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved two bills that would limit Earth science funding for several federal agencies.

The NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 (H.R. 2039), which the committee approved along party lines on 30 April, would cut funding for NASA Earth sciences for fiscal year (FY) 2016 to between $1.2 billion and $1.45 billion. This level is less than the agency’s FY 2015 appropriated amount of $1.77 billion and the administration’s FY 2016 request of $1.95 billion. However, planetary sciences would receive a small boost for FY 2016 to $1.5 billion—compared with $1.44 billion for FY 2015—and a proposed $1.36 billion for FY 2016.

The bill would maintain flat funding for NASA as a whole, with a proposed budget level of between $18.01 billion (the agency’s FY 2015 appropriated amount) and $18.53 billion (the White House’s FY 2016 request).

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, lambasted the bill in a 1 May statement: “If enacted, the NASA authorization bill headed to the House floor later this month would do serious damage to the Nation’s space program, as well as to Earth-observation and Earth-science programs essential for predicting, preparing for, and minimizing the damage from disasters both natural and human-induced.”

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) wrote a letter to the House science committee in opposition to the bill.

Legislation for the National Science Foundation and Other Agencies

On 22 April, the House science committee approved the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806), which would establish and recommend funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science for FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Under the bill, the NSF geosciences directorate would be funded at $1.2 billion for FY 2016 as well as for FY 2017. This amount falls short of the $1.30 billion FY 2015 estimated budget level and the $1.37 billion administration request for FY 2016.

NSF as a whole would receive $7.6 billion for FY 2016, which is $235 million above FY 2015 but less than the administration’s FY 2016 request of $7.72 billion. The legislation would provide specific allocations for NSF directorates, a practice that Democrats worry would remove from the agency some internal budget decision making. The bill prioritizes funding for NSF’s directorates of Biological Sciences, Engineering, Computer and Informational Science, and Mathematical and Physical Sciences. It would also sharply cut funding for the agency’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

The bill will be introduced on the House floor sometime between 18 and 21 May, along with other science-related legislation, according to a 1 May memo from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“A Fiscally Responsible, Pro-science Bill”

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called the America COMPETES legislation “a fiscally responsible, pro-science bill that sets the right priorities for federal civilian research” while staying within the cap set in law by the Budget Control Act for Fiscal Year 2016. Smith said that authorizing funding by directorate, rather than giving NSF a “blank check,” brings the foundation in line with the way Congress authorizes or appropriates money for the majority of other major federal science agencies and programs.

However, committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said the legislation would significantly impair NSF and DOE in particular, and she called H.R. 1806 “a tragedy in waiting.” She contrasted the current bill with the earlier COMPETES acts of 2007 and 2010, which she said sought to ensure the country’s continued scientific preeminence while growing the economy.

“In contrast, H.R. 1806 is preoccupied with questioning the motives of the National Science Foundation and the integrity of the scientists it funds. In addition, it would put up multiple roadblocks to progress in clean energy [research and development], under the guise of preventing ‘picking winners and losers,’ even as H.R. 1806 picks its own winners and losers,” she said.

Setting “a Dangerous Precedent”

Committee member Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) commented, “While these cuts may not be a surprise because the current majority doesn’t support research into the social sciences and climate change, they do set a dangerous precedent to let the politics of the moment dictate the course of scientific research.”

The funding cuts “set a dangerous precedent to let the politics of the moment dictate the course of scientific research.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oreg.), also a committee member, said the bill contains “unnecessary and even harmful provisions that take funding decisions out of the hands of the experts who are best able to determine merit and value of federal research investments.” She said that Earth science research increases U.S. competitiveness and enhances public safety and national security.

Kasey White, director for geoscience policy at the Geological Society of America, told Eos that the bill “critically underfunds” geoscience research and education. “I am hopeful that the Senate will reauthorize COMPETES in a visionary way, similar to the spirit of the original bill and previous Senate bills,” she said.

AGU also jointly signed with 19 other geoscience societies a letter to the House science committee in opposition to the legislation in its current form. The Coalition for National Science Funding, the Task Force on American Innovation, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Energy Sciences Coalition also wrote letters to the House science committee, expressing their concern about the legislation.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), House committee approves bills that limit Earth science funding, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029377. Published on 5 May 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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