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Administration Proposes Another Research Funding Increase for 2017, But Getting Congress to Fund It Would Be a Long-Shot

President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget request for science research and development includes funding for a cybersecurity initiative, a “Moonshot” to improve cancer detection and cures, research on low-carbon energy sources and improved STEM education. In all, the proposed budget calls for $6.2 billion more than 2016 enacted levels, representing a second year of significant increases for research funding.

“One of the thrusts of the budget is to provide support across a range of agencies for research and development that is likely to build the foundations of the industries and jobs of the future,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during a 9 February budget briefing held at AAAS.

However, Obama’s final budget request is most notable for its unorthodox method of funding the increases for research and development. The White House is constrained by a two-year budget agreement it signed in December with Congressional Republican leaders. The deal increased 2016 spending by $50 billion and gave some significant boosts to research funding, but required keeping 2017 discretionary spending flat.

As a result, the Obama administration has proposed increasing “mandatory spending,” which designates money generated by selling federal assets or raising taxes (such as a proposed $10 fee per barrel of oil sold and increasing taxes on higher-income earners) to pay for specific programs. Congress uses the method sparingly, since once such spending programs are put in place, it cannot change them using the normal budget process.

About two-thirds of the proposed budget increases ($4 billion out of $6.2 billion) for research and development would come from mandatory spending. By contrast, the administration only requested an increase in discretionary spending of $2.2 billion, or 1.5% ­­– less than the rate of inflation. For example, discretionary funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is reduced by $1 billion in the proposed budget, but that is offset by a $1.8 billion increase using mandatory funding.

While Congress is not required to follow or consider the president’s budget, it can set priorities and serve as a starting point for negotiations. However, AAAS experts doubt the administration’s new strategy will gain approval from Congress.

“Using mandatory spending to pay for a range of activities across several agencies is a new approach. Some of these proposals are going to be a tough sell in Congress,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.  “It's more likely that Congress finds ways to tuck science priorities into traditional appropriations.” And, since the budget caps on discretionary spending “aren’t going anywhere,” it will be difficult for Congress to repeat last year's increases for science research and development, Hourihan said.

Whether it becomes a reality or not, the administration’s budget proposal has staked out some ambitious goals. It would increase basic research funding $900 million over 2016 levels for work at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It would double clean energy research and development, bringing that amount to $7.7 billion, meeting a pledge the administration made during the Paris climate talks. It also would spend $2.8 billion to assess global climate change impacts.

In addition to $195 million to fund a new cancer research “Moonshot,” the administration proposes $33 billion for the NIH to increase biomedical research. That would include the continued funding the BRAIN initiative, and a new Precision Medicine effort to improve treatment outcomes for a wide range of patients.

The proposed budget allocates $12.5 billion for cybersecurity research to the Department of Defense, $3 billion to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and $318 million to civilian agencies. It also proposes increased spending to improve the country’s manufacturing technologies, agriculture and food research, and would boost private sector R&D using a tax credit.

Students would benefit from the administration’s proposal to improve computer science education while maintaining 2016 levels of funding for wider education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It also proposes two years of tuition-free community college.

"While the 2017 R&D budget request and the proposed increase of 6% is certainly aspirational, its political future is not as promising,” said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS office of government relations. “A number of science groups are disappointed with the structure of this budget and concerned that agencies will be left with flat or reduced funding levels.  However, last year Congress did provide significant support for R&D, and we hope that both branches of government will work in partnership to provide sustainable funding for research in the next year as well.”