House Passes One NSF Budget While Authorizers Grapple With Another

House floor proceedings to pass a key spending bill yielded few significant changes to science agency budgets, even as the Science Committee shoots for a lower NSF target.

On May 30, legislators on the House floor passed the FY 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill with relatively limited change to the funding levels recommended by the Appropriations Committee earlier this month. The CJS bill, which passed by a 321-87 vote, provides funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Commerce, and NASA, among other agencies.

Oddly, NSF funding in the CJS bill exceeds the authorized spending levels put forth in the controversial Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, or FIRST Act, which itself was passed by the House Science Committee on May 28, just as floor proceedings on the CJS spending bill were set to commence. As a reauthorization bill, the FIRST Act does not provide actual funding, but only establishes funding ceilings for NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The actual appropriation received by NSF in the House CJS bill exceeds the proposed FIRST Act authorization by $167 million. Thus, some Republican lawmakers found themselves voting for an NSF spending authorization of $7.22 billion on Wednesday and an actual NSF appropriation of $7.39 billion on Friday.

CJS funding levels for NIST did match those proposed in the FIRST Act — but only because the Science Committee adjusted their proposed authorization to match the Appropriations Committee's NIST number. They declined such a step for NSF. A FIRST Act amendment offered by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) that would have brought the NSF authorization in line with its current appropriation was withdrawn due to lack of support, thus ensuring that the committee's FIRST Act authorization would undershoot the House's current FY 2015 appropriation. Other amendments to boost NSF and NIST authorizations were also voted down, and can be viewed at the House Science Committee's website.

Though changes in overall science agency funding levels were minimal, there were a number of CJS amendments worth noting. In particular, the Census Bureau was raided by multiple lawmakers looking to shift resources elsewhere. Bureau funding was ultimately reduced by a further $133 million below the level provided in the committee bill, which itself had already proposed cutting the Census by $105 million below the request.

A brief review of other amendments is below. See also prior AAAS coverage of the CJS bill, and the White House's statement on the bill (PDF).

NSF (download funding table). A trio of amendments were approved that would impact NSF. The only successful amendment to affect the bottom-line budget was introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), to shift $10 million from NSF operations to background checks for gun purchases. Another amendment offered by Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), to cut an additional $67 million, failed. Thus, the final NSF appropriation in the bill represents a 3.1 percent increase above FY 2014 and a 1.9 percent increase above the President's request.

The other two successful amendments were aimed at the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE), continuing recent partisan conflict over the directorate. One amendment, offered by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), actually targets an individual grant (visible here), preventing new funds from being awarded in FY 2015, though funding for the grant in question was actually awarded last year, and thus the amendment would have no impact. The other, offered by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), would keep SBE funding flat at FY 2014 levels, thus preventing SBE from receiving the funding increase requested by the Administration, even as the rest of NSF's research activities would receive a boost.

Still, even if SBE funding does ultimately end up flat at $257 million, it would still represent a large increase above the current FIRST Act authorization of $150 million for FY 2015. The Science Committee had originally adopted an amendment to take the SBE authorization up to $200 million in FY 2015, but during last week's proceedings accepted an amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to take SBE back down to $150 million.

NASA (download funding table). A pair of NASA amendments were adopted by the House, though neither would affect the space agency's bottom line. One amendment by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) simply shifted $7 million from the Space Operations account to the Space Technology Directorate. The other, offered by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), prevented any funding for NASA's Advanced Food Technology Project. Perry argued that the unlikelihood of a near-term Mars mission makes the program's efforts to develop food for spaceflight unnecessary.

A handful of other amendments to shift funding from NASA's exploration, construction, and aeronautics research programs failed.

Dept. of Commerce (download funding table). No amendments affected NIST funding directly, though an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) directs the Bureau of Industry and Security to use $5 million for a survey to determine industry adoption of NIST's voluntary cybersecurity framework. For the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) added $12 million for weather research within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. Another amendment offered by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), to restore $37.5 million for NOAA climate research cut by the Appropriations Committee, failed.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). NSF was not the only science entity dealing with a disconnect between appropriators and authorizers last week. During the FIRST Act proceedings, the House Science Committee adopted an amendment from Rep. Broun to reduce OSTP's FY 2015 authorization to $4.6 million. But during the CJS proceedings, the full House declined a similar amendment from Broun, thus leaving OSTP's House appropriation at $5.6 million.

The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to deal with its own CJS bill this week, while full House plans for the FIRST Act remain to be determined.