Science Policy & Funding News

Mandatory Funding Would Boost U.S. Science Budget

Much of the White House's proposed 4.2% increase for federal research and development funding next year depends on Congress agreeing to a new "mandatory" funding category not subject to a budget cap.


The Obama administration’s proposed science budget for fiscal year (FY) 2017, released on Tuesday, would provide increases for a number of federal agencies and programs. However, many of the requested increases this year would come through so-called mandatory funding—distinct from entitlements—that the administration says is needed to spend on programs beyond budget caps.

The mandatory funding stream would add to the “discretionary” dollars that usually pay for science programs. Deeming the funding “mandatory” relieves it from budget caps set last year by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, but congressional approval would be required to make the new mandatory funds available, according to budget analysts. Congress is not likely to go along with this plan, which would rely on offset funding from an administration-proposed $10 per barrel tax on oil or other programmatic or tax schemes.

Table 1. Research and Development in the President’s FY 2017 Budgeta
Category FY 2016 Enactedb FY 2017 Budgetb Change FY 20162017
Total research and development  146.1  152.3    4.2%
          Defense    76.6    80.0    4.4%
          Nondefense    69.5    72.4    4.1%
Total research    68.9   72.8    5.7%
          Defense    10.9    11.8    7.9%
          Nondefense    58.0    61.0    5.2%
Total development    74.5    76.7    3.0%
          Defense    65.3    67.6    3.5%
          Nondefense      9.1      9.1  −0.8%
aSource: White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
bBudget authority in billions of current dollars.

The proposed $152.3 billion total for research and development (R&D) calls for increases of more than 4% in both the defense and nondefense categories (see Table 1). Funding of $9.1 billion for nondefense development would remain essentially flat from last year. Of the overall $6.2 billion increase proposed for federal R&D, mandatory funding would provide $4 billion. Without it, R&D would increase only about 1.5%.

“This budget goes to the mandatory category for some of the things we think we need” but can’t get under restraints imposed by last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He summarized the R&D budget at a briefing Tuesday at the offices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D. C.

“The president will continue to argue strongly with Congress that those overall caps are too low [and] that the country needs to make investments, among others, in science and technology and innovation,” Holdren said.

An analysis by the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program also concludes that this mandatory spending, if approved by Congress, would not be subject to the budget caps adopted last fall and acknowledges the chanciness of Congress going along. “Individual agency budgets look very different depending on how one handicaps the odds for these new mandatory proposals,” the document states.

At the briefing, Kei Koizumi, OSTP assistant director for federal research and development, added that placing funding in the mandatory category doesn’t make it any more or less a priority. “These investments are all important,” he said.

The overall R&D budget proposal includes funding for a number of administration priorities, including understanding and responding to climate change. Others include clean energy, Earth observations, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Agency Budgets

Under the new proposal, NASA’s budget would fall slightly, to $19.025 billion from the FY 2016 enacted level of $19.285 billion. However, the total for FY 2017 includes $763 million in what the administration is labeling as mandatory funding, divided between science and other programs. Not counting mandatory funding, the NASA budget would decline to $18.26 billion, a 5.3% reduction. The budget, including mandatory funding, for NASA science funding would increase slightly, to $5.6 billion from $5.59 billion; exploration would drop to $3.34 billion from $4.03 billion, and space operations would go to $5.08 billion from $5.03 billion.

The budget for the National Science Foundation would increase to $7.96 billion (up $500.5 million, 6.7%, from the FY 2016 estimate). The total includes $400 million in mandatory funding: $346 million in Research and Related Activities and $53.99 million in Education and Human Resources.

The proposed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget of $5.85 billion in discretionary appropriations would be an increase of $77.1 million, or 1.3%, above the FY 2016 enacted level of $5.78 billion. The budget includes a proposed $100 million mandatory investment to acquire a second regional survey vessel to maintain the NOAA fleet.

The $13.4 billion proposed budget for the Department of the Interior would be $61.1 million, 0.5%, above the 2016 enacted level. Within Interior’s budget proposal, the request for the U.S. Geological Survey is for $1.2 billion, an increase of $106.8 million over the 2016 enacted budget.

The administration’s proposal also includes $147.6 million within the U.S. Coast Guard budget toward the acquisition of a new polar icebreaker that would reduce U.S. dependence on Russian icebreakers. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) urged the president “to meet his self-imposed deadline of starting construction by 2020.”

More Congressional Responses

Republicans in Congress quickly dismissed the budget proposal. The president “has been using his budget proposals to create a legacy of destroying fossil fuels,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The proposed budget “is already being disregarded in Congress, as neither the Senate [nor] House Budget Committees will be inviting the [White House Office of Management and Budget] director to testify. Congress will instead move forward on crafting a serious budget that represents the interests of the American people,” Inhofe said.

Also decrying the proposed budget, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said that “investments in science and technology have clear benefits for Americans. But the president continues to focus on costly, ineffective energy subsidies and taxes, like a new $10.25 per barrel federal tax on oil.” He knocked the proposal for “disproportionately” increasing NASA Earth science accounts while cutting funding for the agency’s Planetary Science account.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the committee, said the budget proposal includes investments in the full range of research and development and STEM education “to help us meet our greatest challenges.” However, she acknowledged that “it is unrealistic to hope that the president’s budget will be fully accepted by Congress.” She called for members on both sides of the aisle to give it “a fair look” and expressed hope for agreement on some of its provisions.

“We must work to ensure that America remains a leader in science and technology in the decades to come to help us drive innovation and maintain our economic growth,” she said.

Watch for additional coverage of the federal budget proposal in the coming weeks.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Correction, 18 February 2016: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described a tax proposed by the Obama administration. This article has been updated to provide the correct information that the proposed tax is a $10 per barrel tax on oil.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Mandatory funding would boost U.S. science budget, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO045955. Published on 11 February 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0