Omnibus Sets Up Major Boosts for Several Science Agencies

The funding flexibility provided by the October budget deal enabled several increases in R&D appropriations, including some surprises.

For complete R&D funding tables by agency, see here. See also: Following the Omnibus, Most Science Agencies Are At (Or Near) Pre-Sequestration Funding

With the unveiling of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 yesterday, and the White House’s signal that the President would sign the bill if passed by Congress, federal R&D appropriations appear on the verge of completion. Unsurprisingly, given the contours of last October’s budget deal, the numbers look fairly strong for several major R&D agencies. We recap some funding highlights below.

Overall Numbers. According to preliminary AAAS estimates, the omnibus package would provide $148.6 billion in total R&D expenditures for FY 2016, good for an 8.1 percent increase, and 1.5 percent above the President’s request. Defense and nondefense R&D would rise above both the President’s request and earlier House and Senate appropriations levels from this summer. Defense R&D (including the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration) would gain somewhat more. Basic research would rise by 5.1 percent and applied research by 5.5 percent (see breakdown by character).

It’s important to remember that, following the Bipartisan Budget Act deal, discretionary spending is only scheduled to rise in FY 2016 by 5.2 percent overall. That’s one benchmark for understanding how individual agencies or programs did.

Department of Defense (DOD). One big news item is the funding outcome for DOD’s basic research enterprise. At $2.3 billion, it managed to avoid the large cuts proposed by the Administration and embraced in the House. Not every military branch fared the same, however: The Navy gained 3.3 percent while Air Force basic research was cut by 3.8 percent. Army’s major intramural basic research element, which includes funding for several labs, received a 12.4 percent gain. There were also significant increases for applied research across the military branches in several areas. DOD’s Defense Health program also received a major funding infusion for peer-reviewed research, as is the Congressional norm; this year’s total amounts to $1.1 billion. On the flipside, DARPA’s budget was trimmed slightly.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). (see funding table) NIH was the big winner in this year’s omnibus, garnering a full $2 billion increase over FY 2015. All institutes within the agency received generous increases, but none more so than the National Institute on Aging, which secured an additional $401 million in new spending to carry out research on Alzheimer’s disease. The agreement provides the $200 million requested for the new Precision Medicine Initiative, and $100 million to address antimicrobial resistance. Also included is $85 million for NIH’s contribution to the Brain Research through Application of Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, still $50 million short of the request. However the bill language continues to support the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program as well as the follow-on to the National Children’s Study.

Department of Energy (DOE). The Office of Science ended up topping the Administration’s request slightly, and most individual programs received at least modest gains. Advanced Scientific Computing Research avoided House-proposed cuts, and the Administration received most (though not all) of what it requested for exascale computing. The Fusion Energy Sciences program received a small 1.7 percent increase for domestic activities, initially slated for deep reductions. Congress continued to show skepticism over the controversial international fusion project ITER by providing $115 million for the U.S. contribution, a 23.3 reduction from last year’s level.

On the applied technology front, several programs did well, perhaps none more surprising than the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), always a source of dispute. Within EERE, only wind energy funding was cut, by 10.8 percent. The Administration’s advanced manufacturing efforts continue to meet with some funding resistance, but the DOE Advanced Manufacturing Office still received a 14.3 percent boost (compared with a requested doubling). Boosts for nuclear and fossil energy encompassed several technology areas, and smart grid and cybersecurity research also did very well.

National Science Foundation. The total NSF budget would increase by 1.6 percent above FY 2015 funding levels and 3.4 percent below the President’s request. While overall research activities fell short of what the Administration sought, the omnibus offers an improvement over the sub-inflationary increase in House appropriations and flat funding in the Senate. The legislation also omits a provision found in earlier versions of the House bill that would have made steep cuts to NSF’s social science and geosciences research. Instead, language in the omnibus bill allows the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate to remain at last year’s levels, while Geosciences would be permitted to grow in FY 2016. The omnibus provides $146.9 million for neuroscience and cognitive science research in NSF's Understanding the Brain (UtB) activity, which includes the BRAIN Initiative, as requested by the Administration.

NASA. NASA received substantially more than proposed during the appropriations process, and $756 million more than the President's request. Both Earth Science and Planetary Science would come out ahead of FY 2015, resolving a funding disagreement between the Administration, House, and Senate. Aeronautics fared much better than anticipated, managing to avoid larger cuts slated by the President and Congress.  Meanwhile, NASA’s Exploration account received a considerable 20.6 percent increase over last year, which would fund the Orion Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System (SLS) at significantly higher amounts than the President’s budget; SLS would still see funding at least $300 million below what House and Senate appropriators called for. Commercial Spaceflight received the full amount requested by the Administration.

Department of Agriculture (USDA). For the second year in a row, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was shut out on requested funding for public-private agricultural innovation institutes. However, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – the Department’s premiere competitive grants program – received a solid 7.7 percent increase, and the intramural Agricultural Research Service was also granted funding to pursue its capital improvement strategy. The priority item from that strategy is construction of a new poultry science center in Georgia.

Dept. of Commerce – NIST and NOAA. Funding for the two major R&D agencies in the Department of Commerce finished well above appropriations this summer.  The total NIST budget would increase by 11.6 percent above FY 2015, with the agency’s core Scientific & Technical Research account receiving the requested increases for disaster resilient buildings and infrastructure, cryptography, the Materials Genome Initiative, and quantum-based sensors and measurements. Funding for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership would stay flat. The omnibus provides only $25 million for the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI); previously appropriators had refused any additional spending for NNMI institutes, but the Administration had sought $150 million.

NOAA also benefited from the omnibus agreement, receiving an overall 5.8 percent increase compared to appropriations that would have allowed the agency’s budget to drop below FY 2015 levels. Within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, climate research was flat-funded after facing cuts in the House. The bill upholds funding increases for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Included is $370 million to initiate the Polar Follow-On (PFO) program, which was earlier rejected by both chambers. The omnibus also reverses previous attempts by Congress to block funding for new vessel construction, and $80 million is now available to replace one of NOAA's oldest research vessels currently in operation.  

USGS and EPA. Unlike most other agencies, USGS was awarded little extra from the omnibus agreement. Total USGS R&D is estimated to be a mere 1.1 percent increase over FY 2015, which comes to $88 million or 11.6 percent below the request. The bill once again dismisses the large funding boosts requested by the Administration for activities in the Climate and Land Use Change program associated with the President’s Climate Action Plan. Elsewhere, an increase slated for the Fish & Wildlife Service’s science programs was turned down in the final bill.

At EPA, the overall picture remains no better. Nearly every program within the agency’s core Science & Technology accounts received small increases above House and Senate appropriations, but these only allow S&T funding to remain at FY 2015 levels. Research programs on Chemical Safety and Sustainability, Safe and Sustainable Water Resources, Homeland Security, and Air, Climate, and Energy would all be flat-funded in FY 2016.

For complete R&D funding tables by agency, see here.