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With Congress Gone Until Labor Day, Here's Where Science Funding Stands

Mostly modest outcomes in a typically-stunted appropriations process.

Update: FY 2017 Appropriations So Far: A Roundup (Sep 14)


With the looming end of the fiscal year (September 30) and the upcoming election (November 8), Congress still has a long way to go to wrap up FY 2017 appropriations. None of the twelve annual spending bills have yet been signed into law, and few have been approved by either chamber. Lawmakers are on recess until Labor Day, but when they get back they’ll have to figure out how to proceed on a continuing resolution that will punt funding decisions at least until late fall to avoid a shutdown, and continue to grapple with lingering floor fights over policy riders on everything from abortion to Zika.

In spite of these now-standard obstacles afflicting the process, forward movement has not been totally absent. Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees wrapped up work on their twelve annual spending bills before hitting the annual summer recess in mid-July. Assuming Congress eventually gets to an omnibus spending package, the outcomes of this work will shape that debate. With that said, here are some brief observations on where things stand for science at the break.

Overall R&D budget figures are predictably modest – with the exception of NIH. The spending caps reached in last year’s budget deal were always going to limit the upside for science funding this appropriations cycle. Under that deal, discretionary spending, which provides most science and technology funding, is essentially flat in FY 2017 and, as we wrote in our spring report on the President’s budget request, “Constrained discretionary spending means limited room for science spending growth.”


That observation has been borne out so far in most spending bills (see table at right and the graph above; also agency totals). Barring a significant change, the nondefense R&D budget – which includes the National Science Foundation, NASA, and others – wouldn’t change much in FY 2017, with an aggregate 1.5 percent increase in the House and a 3.1 percent increase in the Senate, according to current AAAS estimates (compared to a rate of inflation of 1.8 percent). On the defense side, the data appears to show the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with a major boost in FY 2017, but this is partly due to a large, unexplained drop in R&D funding reported for FY 2016. That drop does not reflect what actually happened in the underlying appropriations accounts, which were increased by Congress last year, and thus may be an accounting oddity.[1] Beyond NNSA, the main driver of defense R&D is by far the Department of Defense. DOD would see little R&D change overall, though Senate appropriators were more generous for DOD science and technology than their House counterparts. Heated debates over use of the Pentagon's war funds seem to have had only limited impact on the R&D bottom line.

The significant outlier to all this, of course, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has received a billion-dollar increase from House appropriators and a $2 billion increase in the Senate, refuting the large-billion dollar cut to the discretionary budget proposed by the President. These sizable increases would seem to ensure NIH will finally get back to pre-sequestration budget levels, and pull up the overall R&D budget numbers in the process.


While Congress hasn't been particularly generous, they have in fact protected research funding. Based on appropriations decisions so far, the federal research budget for FY 2017 will likely end up around $3 or $4 billion higher than the Administration had requested. The discretionary request had proposed billion-dollar cuts to the base budgets at NIH and NASA, and a nine percent reduction in Department of Defense basic research. This collectively would have meant a trim for applied research funding and a deeper cut for federal basic research overall, as shown in the graph at right. Appropriators have mostly rejected these proposals: beyond the aforementioned NIH boost, NASA appears set up for a small increase, and appropriators in the Senate (but not the House) turned away the proposed Defense cut.

Remember all that mandatory spending proposed for R&D? Neither does Congress. The Administration claimed to seek a more than $6 billion increase for R&D in FY 2017, but most of this would have been achieved through mandatory spending, rather than discretionary spending. To again refer back to our spring report:

Mandatory spending – also known as direct spending – refers to any spending written into, and required by, laws other than appropriations bills. Getting a mandatory funding stream established requires new legislation, and that legislation would have to come from the authorizing committees rather than the appropriations committees…One reason mandatory spending is an attractive alternative for the Administration is that it is not subject to the discretionary spending caps. But it does come with some challenges. For one, appropriators don’t always favor mandatory spending, as it takes the power to allocate federal dollars out of their hands. In addition, new mandatory spending is subject to PAYGO rules, which means it must be deficit-neutral and offset by revenue increases or spending cuts elsewhere.

This extra funding may have made the numbers look better in the aggregate, but reaching for mandatory spending was a long shot, in the same way earlier proposals to blow past the discretionary budget caps were also longshots. Since February, Congressional leaders have rejected this mandatory funding approach, and it’s mostly gone nowhere.[2] For some agencies – specifically NASA and, especially, NIH – appropriators have instead relied on discretionary funding to plug the holes left by missing mandatory dollars. For other agencies, rejection of those new funding streams has meant more modest fiscal outcomes (as at, for instance, NSF and the Department of Energy). It’s also meant that some priorities tied to new mandatory spending in the President’s budget – perhaps most notably the Cancer Moonshot and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation – have gone mostly unfunded.


Climate, environment, and energy funding conflicts remain in place. One can probably bookmark this paragraph and return to it every year: the partisan funding cleavages over climate science and energy technology remain particularly strong (see graph). The Administration had once again proposed major increases for renewable energy and climate and environment-related research across several agencies, while reducing net new funding for fossil energy R&D. Once again, Congress has rejected these proposals. House Republicans have shown opposition across-the-board. In some cases Senate Republicans (along with their Democratic colleagues) have sought middle ground between the two, though Senate appropriators also have clear preferences on, for instance, EPA science and technology funding, nuclear power technology development funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA’s Earth Science program. Budgeting is a negotiation, and clearly the Administration hasn't found the right offer to appeal to their Congressional foils on its low-carbon technology plans.

Stuck in the middle once again. Science and technology funding can at times be an innocent bystander during larger budget and policy fights, and this year is an example of that, as multiple spending bills with majority support have been hit with controversial policy riders. These have included language on Iran (the Energy & Water bill); gay rights (Energy & Water); gun control (Commerce, Justice, Science); and Planned Parenthood and confederate flags (Zika bill, itself attached to a transportation/veterans package), among other items. Debates over policy riders have slowed things down and necessitate a continuing resolution to keep federal agencies operating.[3]

So what’s next? One of the next big funding questions for Congress is still the length of a continuing resolution, which would freeze current spending levels in place to give Congress additional time to work on a final spending package. Some want six months’ time; others only want three months. There is also the Zika question, as more than a dozen local cases have cropped up in Florida for the first time. All of this will be on the docket come September.

[1] Note also the Department of Energy’s official R&D accounting methodology was revised in this year's budget request, which included data for FY 2015, FY 2016, and FY 2017. This methodological change adds $2-3 billion to DOE's bottom line in these years, and explains the big jump in Energy & Water R&D funding visible in the top graph after FY 2014. This accounting change may be one factor underlying the odd NNSA numbers this year.

[2] The one big exception still in play is the 21st Century Cures Act, which would grant a large, multiyear mandatory funding stream to NIH. That bill has been approved by the House and awaits Senate action. But the Administration doesn’t get the credit for this one: it was written and approved by the House Energy & Commerce Committee last year, several months before the Administration issued its mandatory R&D funding request.

[3] Science and technology funding is also stuck in the middle in the longer run, of course, as growth in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending swamps everything in the discretionary budget – including R&D.

Cover image credit: Architect of the Capitol Flickr