Matt Hourihan: The Ups and Downs of the U.S. Science Budget

The U.S. government spends about $4 trillion a year. To put that in astronomical terms, if you laid all that out in singles, it would stretch from the Earth to the Sun four times. In meteorological terms, you could really make it rain. And figuring out what that means for the bottom lines of American science agencies is where Matt Hourihan comes in.

Hourihan runs the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS, a post he’s held since 2011. He’s built a reputation among policy wonks and journalists as a go-to guy for figuring out whether an administration is putting its money where its mouth is. And with a new administration preparing to drop its first fiscal blueprint, he’s gearing up for the announcement.

Hourihan recently talked with MemberCentral about the job, the ups and downs of federal science and technology spending in the past few years, and the expectations budgeters may have from a Trump administration.

Q. So we’re getting into your busiest time of the year. What’s your day-to-day like during budget season?

Hourihan: When the president’s budget comes out, there’s always a lot of information we have to absorb. It’s reviewing numbers, it’s reviewing agency budget documents, trying to distill and synthesize what it is they’re proposing and then what the big changes are—increases and decreases—and how it fits in with the broader budget context.

Then once Congress gets going with appropriations, it stays busy. You’re following hearings, following spending bills as they’re introduced, tracking bills as they move through the chambers, following amendments and just trying to keep up with the deluge of information. You can have weeks where there are multiple spending bills that are highly relevant to science moving through one or both appropriations committees. So keeping up on all that definitely keeps us busy.

Q: How did you get into this end of the field?

Hourihan: My involvement with AAAS actually began as an intern when I was in grad school. I interned for what was then known as the Center for Science and Technology in Congress, now the Office of Government Relations. That was [in] 2009. That was my introduction to the organization and all of the things AAAS does beyond the journals—the various programs, the policy work.

It was only for a few months, but it was great experience. And when the opportunity came up to head up the budget work, I jumped at it. I thought it was a great chance to work for a great organization and help folks inside and outside DC understand what’s going on with the federal budget—why it matters, what’s changing, what the major trends are.

Q: Let’s talk about those trends. What has the trend been in science funding in the past decade or so? Where are the bright spots, and what maybe needs more attention?

Hourihan: Well, if we go back a decade ago now we had the America COMPETES effort in the Bush years. It was an attempt to update American innovation policy which, among other things, tried to secure a budget doubling for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and lab activities at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology—all three physical science agencies. We had some gains for those agencies. The NIH budget had doubled from 1998 to 2003 and was still high at that point, though it had begun to erode. Things overall peaked around 2010.

Since then, after the first couple of Obama years, we’ve been in this period of decline and recovery. There were some pretty major cuts to the non-defense discretionary budget starting in the 2011 fiscal year. Then we had sequestration in 2013. And so over this few-year period, overall discretionary spending came down by well over 10 percent, and most science agency budgets came down along with it.

Following sequestration, Congress has acted multiple times to increase the spending caps somewhat. That has had some pretty clear impacts on science and technology agency funding. In 2014, we saw some big jumps. And then again in 2016, we had a pretty strong year for science funding. So as of right now, most of the major science agencies are back to or nearly back to their pre-sequestration funding levels. On the other hand, most of them are still below that 2010 peak, and some are still operating with smaller budgets than  when Obama took office.

Q: In the last few years, the government has been funded mostly by a series of continuing spending resolutions. How has that affected science funding, and do you see it changing anytime soon?

Hourihan: Congress has had to pass at least some continuing resolutions [CRs] every year for a couple of decades now. The spending fights worsened in the Obama years, but they’re not unique to the Obama years.

When agencies have to operate under a CR, it definitely impacts their activities. Agencies have to become more conservative in what they spend, since they’re starting the fiscal year without actually knowing how much they’re actually going to have to spend in the final summation. It means they may have to reduce or delay the grant awards they offer. It may mean delays in construction projects or maintenance projects on research facilities. It’s a problematic place to be.

Another problem with operating under continuing resolutions is typically agencies can’t initiate any new starts. Continuing resolutions usually provide funding only for activities that were funded in the previous fiscal year.

It’s not a good state of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s been the regular state of affairs for a couple of decades. It doesn’t make life any easier for science agencies or for the community that relies on them.

Q: There’s a new administration in town. What do we know about their priorities, when do you expect answers to what we don’t know?

Hourihan: The administration’s budget summary is going to come this week, and then the full budget will likely come out at the tail end of April or the beginning of May. The administration is already saying they are going to attempt to cut non-defense discretionary spending by about $54 billion in the upcoming budget request. That would represent about a ten and a half percent cut if it were to be adopted by Congress. And they would take that $54 billion and move it over to the defense budget.

Beyond that, there’ve been a lot of leaks and reports. You want to keep that information in mind, be aware of it, but you also have to see what actually makes it into the final public proposal. The White House may have one set of ideas but taking them to the agencies, the agencies may have some pushback or recommend some alternative approaches or priorities. Those conversations can affect what the White House ends up putting out. There’s a lot of moving parts.

Most early reports suggest there’s going to be particular targets on [the] EPA, climate change research and environmental research, [and] low-carbon energy technology. At the same time, with a cut as large as they’re seeking to the non-defense discretionary budget, there are probably going to be ripple effects for every agency. We also know that President Trump has said more than once that addressing disease is going to be one of his goals as president. He’s mentioned space exploration. Those are some early clues. We’ll start getting the concrete proposals very soon.

But the big thing to remember is that Congress has the power of the purse, so they have the final say on funding levels for science agencies, and the final say on whether the non-defense budget is getting cut overall. And what Congress ends up doing could well look a lot different from what the Trump Administration has in mind.