A Periodic Federal Science Update

Two "sequestration update" reports issued recently by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office serve as reminders that the quiet August Congressional recess is giving way to a period of fiscal uncertainty and high spirited spending debates.  As Congress returns from that recess, the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), with its sequester provisions (automatic across the board budget cuts for many defense and non-defense programs), remain the law of the land. At this juncture, however, interim and final spending decisions will probably be within the spending caps and, if so, that will negate any mid-year sequester for FY17.  As Congress returns to Washington and the year-end spending debate ensues, the two-year budget deal passed in late 2015 to raise, and then level off, the BCA caps for FY 16 and FY17 for federal spending, may be revisited.  Some Members may push to raise defense spending levels, while others will want similar consideration for non-defense spending, and a third group would like to cancel the slight increase in spending included in the October 2015 budget deal and lower the caps.  The Administration had its own plan for increasing spending on R&D which was reflected in the budget plan presented to Congress back in February. 

The Administration claimed to seek a more than $6 billion increase for R&D in FY 2017, but most of this would have been achieved through mandatory spending, rather than discretionary spending.  This extra funding may have made the numbers look better in the aggregate, but reaching for mandatory spending was a non-starter, in the same way earlier proposals to bypass the discretionary budget caps with proposals such as an “opportunity fund” or “security fund.”  Since February, Congressional leaders have rejected this mandatory funding approach. For some agencies – specifically NASA and, especially, NIH – appropriators have instead relied on discretionary funding to backfill the shortfall left by missing mandatory dollars. For other agencies, rejection of those new funding streams has meant more modest fiscal outcomes (as at, for instance, NSF and the Department of Energy). It has also meant that some priorities tied to new mandatory spending in the President’s budget – perhaps most notably the Cancer Moonshot and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation – have gone mostly unfunded.

These sequester reports and the debate regarding the BCA spending levels are a reminder that the budget process is highly contentious and will delay the resolution of the FY17 appropriations process until well into the new fiscal year. Most observers believe Congress will avert the threat of a government shut down by passing a stop-gap spending measure, or a continuing resolution (CR) by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30). This will enable programs and agencies to continue to operate at current levels for the time covered in the CR.  The length of the CR has not yet been determined, but most expect the CR will last between three and six months.

As for the FY 2018 budget process, with a change of Administration coming in January 2017, OMB issued guidance in the spring and then reiterated that guidance this summer which said given the impending Administration changes, agencies are not required to submit formal budget requests in September as is usually the case.  OMB intends to prepare a budget database that includes a complete current services baseline.  OMB has said it intends to work with agencies to prepare the current services baseline for FY 2018 as well as other budget and programmatic information from which the incoming Administration can develop its budget proposal.

With those fluid and uncertain FY17 and FY18 budget issues in mind, and with Congress returning from its August recess, what follows is an update on where spending and other legislation important to the research community currently stands.

Overall R&D in the FY17 Process:  The spending caps reached in last year’s budget deal were always going to limit the upside for science funding this appropriations cycle. Under that deal, discretionary spending, which provides most science and technology funding, is essentially flat in FY 2017.  Barring a significant change, the nondefense R&D budget – which includes the National Science Foundation, NASA, and others – wouldn’t change much in FY 2017, with an aggregate 1.5 percent increase in the House and a 3.1 percent increase in the Senate, according to current AAAS estimates (compared to a rate of inflation of 1.8 percent). DOD would see little R&D change overall, though Senate appropriators were more generous for DOD science and technology than their House counterparts. Debates over use of the Pentagon's war funds seem to have had only limited impact on the R&D bottom line.

The significant outlier to all this, of course, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has received a billion-dollar increase from House appropriators and a $2 billion increase in the Senate, refuting the large-billion dollar cut to the discretionary budget proposed by the President. These sizable increases would seem to ensure NIH will finally get back to pre-sequestration budget levels.

Based on appropriations decisions so far, the federal research budget for FY 2017 will likely end up around $3 or $4 billion higher than the Administration had requested. The discretionary request had proposed billion-dollar cuts to the base budgets at NIH and NASA, and a nine percent reduction in Department of Defense basic research. This collectively would have meant a trim for applied research funding and a deeper cut for federal basic research overall.  Appropriators have mostly rejected these proposals: beyond the aforementioned NIH boost, NASA appears set up for a small increase, and appropriators in the Senate (but not the House) turned away the proposed Defense cut.

NIH and Biomedical Research:  On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee approved the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) appropriations bill, by a vote of 31-19. The measure provides $33.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an increase of $1.25 billion (4 percent) compared to the FY 2016 level and $2.25 billion above President Obama’s request.

Noting that the Senate Appropriations Committee provided a $2 billion increase for NIH, House LHHS Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) said that the smaller increase in the House bill was “a floor, not a ceiling.” Others also highlighted the additional funding for NIH, including LHHS Subcommittee ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), and Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY).  Within the total for NIH, the bill specified funding for the following initiatives:

  • $511.5 million for Clinical and Translational Sciences Awards
  • $333.3 million for the Institutional Development Awards Program
  • $350 million increase for Alzheimer’s research
  • $195 million for the Brain Research through Application of Innovative Neuro-technologies Initiative
  • $300 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative
  • $12.6 million for pediatric cancer research.

The Senate report that accompanies this Appropriations Bill can be found here, while the House report can be found here.

National Science Foundation (NSF):  The House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill funds NSF at $7.4 billion, which is $57 million below the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and $158 million below the President’s request.  Research and Related Activities is increased by $46 million targeted to programs that foster innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness, including funding for research on advanced manufacturing, physics, mathematics, cybersecurity, neuroscience and STEM education. Reductions are made in equipment and construction costs.

The bill funds the NSF Research and Related Account at $6 billion – an increase of $46 million over FY 2016.  NSF had sought an increase of about $100 million in discretionary funding.  Within the funds provided the Committee calls on NSF to fund the Experimental Program to Stimulate Research at $170.7 million, the BRAIN initiative at $146.9 million, and $48 million for the International Ocean Drilling Program.

Unlike last year, there is no language restricting the funding of the geosciences or the social sciences.  Directorate funding decisions would be made by NSF pending the outcome of the FY 2017 appropriations process.  The report from the committee that accompanies the bill, directs NSF to allocate sufficient support to its national research facilities such as the current academic fleet, its Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and its high performance computing centers to enable the conduct of cutting edge research.  The Committee also calls on NSF to submit a five-year schedule for the deployment of the academic fleet that maximizes research opportunities in a cost effective and transparent manner.

Similar to the House, the Senate bill funds the National Science Foundation at $46 million above the FY 2016 enacted level of $7.5 billion.  However, the Senate would target this additional funding not to research as the House does, but to the design and construction of three Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs) -- NSF had requested funding for two RCRV’s in its FY 2017 budget request.  

The NSF research account is funded at $6.03 billion and the NSF education and human resources directorate is funded at $880 million – both are level with FY 2016.  The Committee’s report that accompanies this bill notes “funding is provided for basic research across all scientific disciplines (emphasis added) to support the development of effective Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [STEM] programs and to grow the next generation of scientists.” “Across all scientific disciplines” is the Senate’s indication that they will support all of NSF’s research directorates, including the social sciences and geosciences.  

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):  For NOAA, the House would provide $5.6 billion, which is $185 million below the enacted level and $268 million below the President’s request. Funding is targeted to the National Weather Service, which receives $1.1 billion – $12 million above the President’s request.  The bill also includes full funding for the continuation of the current Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellite program and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program to help maintain and improve weather forecasting to warn communities about potentially devastating natural disasters.

The NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) is to be funded at $435.6 million for operations, research, and facilities ($26 million below FY 2016) – including a 20% reduction to climate research with funding proposed to decline from the FY 2016 level of $158 million to $128 million in FY 2017.  NOAA is encouraged to fund academia to perform independent climate model evaluation studies to enable the production of atmospheric data sets from satellite observations.  

Weather and air chemistry research is increased by $15 million over last year for a total of $118 million with encouragement to continue research efforts that lead to advances in observational, computing, and modeling capabilities to deliver improvements in weather forecasting and to accelerate this research into operations.  The U.S. Weather Research Program is funded at $8 million, the same as in FY 2016, instead of the requested $16.1 million.  No funding or language regarding the proposed new airborne phased array radar (APAR) program is included in the Committee’s report.  The Senate provides $4.6 million for APAR in its recommendations. The Joint Technology Transfer Initiative, begun last year with $6 million is to be increased to $17 million.  The Committee did not provide any of the $10 million requested for the new Research Transition Acceleration Program (RTAP).  

The Senate bill includes $5.7 billion for NOAA, a $33.5 million increase above the FY2016 enacted level for core NOAA operations including: ocean monitoring; fisheries management; coastal grants to states; aquaculture research; and severe weather forecasting. The bill provides full funding for NOAA’s flagship weather satellites. With respect to COSMIC 2 microsatellite program, the Committee provided $8.1 million to support the ground reception and processing of radio occultation satellite data.  No funding was provided for the second set of sensors since NOAA has yet to identify a launch provider for the proposed second set of satellites.  The Committee did provide $3 million to support NOAA’s newly launched assessment and potential use of commercial data in NOAA’s weather modeling and forecasting through pilot purchases of commercial data and $2 million (not the $10 million requested) to establish NOAA’s new research to operations program, RTAP.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration:  Finally, the House bill funds NASA at $19.5 billion which is $223 million above FY 2016.  Within in this total is $5.6 billion for Science of which $1.6 billion is for earth science and $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion for planetary science.  NASA education totals $115 million under the Committee’s recommendation.  Other NASA funding recommendations in the bill include:  $4.2 billion for Exploration – $153 million above the fiscal year 2016 enacted level. This includes funding to continue the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System flight program and related ground systems. $5.6 billion for NASA Science programs – $8 million above the 2016 enacted level and $295 million above the President’s request. This targets funding to planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics to ensure the continuation of critical research and development programs, while reducing funding for lower-priority research.

The Senate would fund NASA at $19.3 billion, or $21 million above the FY16 enacted level. The measure increases funding for NASA's exploration programs, but cuts funding for the Science Mission Directorate. Science would receive $5.4 billion, or $194 million below the FY16 enacted level. The Space Technology Directorate would be level-funded at $687 million.  

As the year proceeds, House and Senate negotiators will be discussing the differences in their respective recommendations in an effort to resolve those differences so the bill can finalized either as part of a larger appropriations bill or as a more conventional “stand alone” appropriations bill.

For more detail, read the House report that accompanies the FY17 CJS Appropriations Bill here and the report that accompanies the Senate version of this bill here.

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Other Legislation

Congress has been developing legislation that would reauthorize science and engineering research at the NSF, research and technology development at the Commerce Department’s National Institute for Standards and Technology, weather research and operations at NOAA, and the space program at NASA.   

Improving U.S. Competitiveness -- At the end of June, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee marked up and reported out S. 3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Bill, the Senate’s alternative to the House’s America COMPETES legislation (H.R. 1806, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015).  The Senate’s bipartisan bill maximizes basic research by reducing administrative burdens for researchers, enhancing agency oversight, improving research dissemination, and reforming federal science agencies to increase the impact of taxpayer-funded research. 

S. 3084 most directly affects programs within the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last July, Sens. Gardner and Peters kicked off efforts to build a consensus way forward for federal research policies. Their competitiveness working group held three roundtables with research community stakeholders and collected hundreds of submissions and comments that informed the group’s work.  In May, the Commerce Committee held a formal hearing with research community witnesses who praised the committee for its efforts to build a bipartisan consensus.

During the mark up, amendments were adopted that authorized a 4% increase for the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2018; also included was a provision sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to raise the threshold for micro-purchases from the OMB level of $3000 to $10,000.  Other amendments adopted related to informal science education, sustainable chemistry, and manufacturing research.

Weather Forecast Improvement Legislation -- Congress is poised to enact the first major piece of weather research and weather operations legislation in over a decade. House and Senate staff are having informal discussions in an attempt to “pre-conference” and merge relevant components of three separate weather bills into a single bill.  They are trying to come up with a single comprehensive bill that provides support for short term improvement in forecasting abilities; research and other support to improve longer or seasonal forecasting with a focus on meeting the needs of users of seasonal forecasts; and improvements to the watches and warnings system including a focus on defining NOAA’s roles and responsibilities with respect to hazardous weather.  The specific legislative initiatives include:

  • H.R. 1561, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015;
  • S. 1331, the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act; and
  • S. 1573, the Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act of 2015.

The House bill focuses on a commercial data buy pilot activity; improvement in warning times for severe weather (i.e. tornados); strengthening weather observing systems; codifying the Environmental Information Services Working Group (an external advisory body that reports to the NOAA Science Advisory Board); and strengthening interagency coordination for weather operations and research.  The Senate bills focus on seasonal forecast improvement; commercial data buy provisions; establishment of Weather Commission; and a National Academies report on observing data priorities.

NASA Reauthorization Legislation -- Finally, Congress is pursuing a NASA reauthorization bill that will likely be passed before the end of the year.  The bill focuses predominantly on manned space-flight and does not discuss NASA science.  The reauthorization will enable NASA to continue to pursue its programs and prepare it well for the new administration.  UCAR, in concert with other science organization partners, continues to promote balance across NASA's science portfolio and adherence to decadal survey recommendations.