Agency Budgets in the FIRST Act and America COMPETES

As Congress attempts to reauthorize a flagship piece of innovation legislation, Democrats and Republicans are taking vastly different funding approaches.

Both the majority Republicans and the minority Democrats have recently introduced bills to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which affects some key science and innovation agencies and federal investments in STEM education. COMPETES has been passed by Congress twice before, in 2007 and 2010, but those authorizations have since expired, making reauthorization a priority.

Among other things, the COMPETES Act sets funding targets for select physical science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and two offices with the Department of Energy (DOE): the Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. These targets are more aspirational than anything else, as Congress regularly falls short of reaching them. For instance, the cumulative gap between the COMPETES 2010 targets and actual appropriations for these four agencies was roughly $6.0 billion, from FY 2011 to FY 2013. Appropriators similarly fell short of the 2007 COMPETES bill. Given the current fiscal constraints under which Congress and the Administration are operating, it's hard to imagine appropriators will be able to hit anything more than modest funding targets over the next several years.

On this funding question, the two new bills feature some stark differences, beginning with what's covered. The new Democratic bill — simply called America COMPETES 2014 (H.R. 4159; bill text), and which was circulated as a discussion draft last fall — covers all four agencies mentioned above. By contrast, the Republicans have chosen to split the authorizations into two bills. The newly introduced bill, known as the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, or FIRST Act (H.R. 4186; bill text), tackles only NSF and NIST. The Energy Department agencies will be addressed — together or separately — in separate legislation still to come.

The bills also differ markedly in funding targets and timeframe. The basic picture is shown in the chart at right. The Democratic bill would provide funding authorizations through FY 2019, while the FIRST Act only covers two years, including FY 2014, for which appropriations have already been completed.

The Democratic bill is also much more ambitious in its funding targets. The 2007 America COMPETES Act sought to double the budgets for NSF, NIST, and DOE Science from 2006 levels by 2013; the second COMPETES Act would have achieved the doubling by 2017. The Democratic bill would achieve this doubling by 2023 (one year later than the earlier discussion draft), through annual increases of about 4.9 percent per year. By contrast, the FIRST Act would only achieve an increase for NIST and NSF of 1.5 percent in FY 2015. At that pace, agency budgets would nominally "double" by 2075 — though inflation would render such increases meaningless. Indeed, factoring in inflation, the FIRST Act would result in a small cut for both agencies from their current levels, though they would be slightly ahead of the rest of the discretionary budget.

Lastly, the Republican bill takes the unusual step of authorizing individual directorates within NSF, which hasn't happened in years. Typically, appropriators grant a single budget number for all research activities within NSF, and this number is then divvied up between directorates. By proposing an authorization one step "lower" in the accounting hierarchy, the bill would allow steep funding cuts to the social sciences, a long-time target for some legislators.

The chart at right shows the relative effect of this. The Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) has long been the slowest-growing of the six major research programs within NSF, even with some relatively stronger increases in the late Bush/early Obama years. The FIRST Act would generally preserve the other five directorate budgets, albeit with a cut to Geosciences research, but would take SBE roughly 30 percent below FY 2000 levels, adjusted for inflation [3/14/14 Update: the subcommittee has approved an amendment to reduce the cuts to SBE, increasing the authorization to $200 million in FY 2015 from $150 million. This would represent a 22 percent cut from FY 2014 levels, rather than a 42 percent cut as originally proposed. To see the updated chart reflecting this amendment click here. For amendments and votes go here.]

Some additional numbers:

  • The Democrats' FY 2015 targets for NSF and NIST are roughly $271 million higher than the FIRST Act targets. In turn, the Republicans' proposal is about $103 million above where one might expect the two agencies to end up if they are allowed only to grow at the same pace as the overall nondefense discretionary caps (established by the Budget Control Act and the December budget deal), but slightly below the President's request.

  • COMPETES 2007 established a seven-year doubling path for agency budgets from 2006 levels, while COMPETES 2010 established an 11-year doubling path. The Democratic bill would establish a 17-year doubling path.

  • In cumulative inflation-adjusted dollars, the Democratic proposal is $4.6 billion higher than projected agency growth rates under the current spending caps, and $1.4 billion higher in FY 2019 alone.

  • NIST and NSF budgets may continue to drop as a share of GDP under the current spending caps (chart at right). This decline would also occur under the GOP bill next year, while the Democratic plan is essentially what's required to allow science and innovation budgets to keep pace with economic projections.

 The Committee will mark up the FIRST Act tomorrow, March 13. See also coverage from ScienceInsider and Nature.