Congress Rejects White House Approach, Pursues Targeted Science & Technology Boosts

The new omnibus funding package, if adopted, would chart a very different course for science and technology funding than that envisioned by President Trump.

After months of waiting and weeks of negotiating, Congress has finally released the final FY 2017 omnibus funding bill – and many scientists and engineers can exhale a sigh of relief, as Congress has taken a very different path than that proposed by the Trump Administration. According to current AAAS estimates, the omnibus bill would increase federal R&D by five percent above FY 2016 levels, with increases for basic and applied research, development, and R&D facilities funding (see summary table).

As can be seen in Figure 1, some agencies and programs would receive sizable increases, perhaps most notably the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the research office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Department of Defense science and technology programs; and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Several other agencies would receive smaller increases nearer or below the rate of inflation, and there are some scattered year-over-year reductions as well. See the agency notes below for more detail.

Taken together, these funding outcomes are notable for two big reasons. First, the spending caps in FY 2017 are slated for hardly any increase; even without much room to work with, legislators were able to overcome this constraint for many agencies. Perhaps more importantly, these decisions run directly counter to the Trump Administration’s spending preferences for the current year. While one should always be cautious, it does provide some additional evidence beyond rhetoric that the current Congress is willing to push back against the Trump Administration’s plans. This should give science advocates reason for optimism in light of the Administration’s much tougher budget for FY 2018: this same Congress will begin writing the next round of spending bills in a matter of weeks. Time will tell if the Administration is able to wield more influence in the next funding cycle, given their lack of it in the late stages of this cycle.

The spending package will be taken up by the House Rules Committee the afternoon of Tuesday, May 2, with House and Senate votes to follow in short order. A recap of the R&D totals is below, with brief notes on select agencies to follow.

R&D Totals (Summary Table)

The current AAAS estimate of total R&D in the omnibus is $155.8 billion, an increase of 5.0 percent above FY 2016 levels, with a somewhat larger increase for defense R&D. This includes increases of 4.1 percent for basic research, 6.3 percent for applied research, 4.0 percent for development, and 2.9 percent for facilities and equipment. Figure 2 shows the relative changes. Note that the budget from President Obama, issued last year, relied heavily on new mandatory spending to offset targeted cuts in the discretionary budgets for certain agencies like NIH. Figure 2 leaves out these mandatory proposals and shows only the base-budget reductions in the Obama science budget, though it’s also worth noting that the omnibus is still more generous than the Obama budget would have been even had that mandatory spending been adopted rather than ignored (see last year’s budget report for additional details on the proposals).

The current estimate puts federal R&D at 0.81 percent of GDP, representing a small uptick on that metric, and the highest it has been since the year prior to sequestration, the across-the-board cuts levied on federal agencies in FY 2013.

Department of Defense (Funding Tables: DOD R&D | R&D by Military Branch | Basic Research | Science & Tech)

DOD science and technology spending would see a general rise across most military branches and agencies, though this is particularly concentrated on applied research and advanced technology in sensors, materials, and other areas. Basic science funded via the Navy would actually be cut by 16.2 percent, as recommended by the Senate committee, which would more than offset increases for basic research in the other branches, and total DOD basic research would decline by 1.4 percent as a result. The DARPA budget would also see a smaller increase than one might have expected, given the higher funding levels recommended by both chambers. DOD’s medical research account, which funds intramural and extramural research on an array of health-related topics, would be subject to a small 0.9 percent cut. Congressionally added peer-reviewed research on cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other areas would tally up to over $900 million. Elsewhere, the Pentagon was granted its requested funding to continue its manufacturing innovation institutes, an Obama-era initiative that seems set to pass its first survival test.

Department of Energy (Funding Table)

DOE’s Office of Science would receive only a 0.8 percent increase in the omnibus, but this includes a steep cut to ITER, the international fusion reactor under construction in France. Legislators would only provide $50 million for the project, compared to a 2016 appropriation of $115 million, amid growing concern over the project’s management. Outside fusion, other programs would receive a range of rather modest increases. Advanced computing is slated for the largest increase at 4.2 percent, with an extra $10 million allocated for the office’s exascale computing initiative. Appropriators sought the middle funding ground for both the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) and the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) programs compared to earlier figures from the House and Senate. The Administration had sought additional BES funding to, among other things, expand the Energy Frontier Research Centers program. The spending package seems to make minimal other changes. 

The Department’s applied technology offices represent an ongoing battleground given the Trump Administration’s intentions to cut these programs deeply, and reports that the Administration is already slowing the pace of funding at ARPA-E. In that light, legislators’ omnibus funding of DOE technology programs may be surprising: all five would receive at least modest increases. The largest increase is slated for R&D on grid technology and cybersecurity. While many programs in renewable energy would be trimmed, Congress also included funding for the Department’s clean energy manufacturing innovation institutes and an Energy-Water Desalination Hub. Legislators also provided $50 million for pilot projects to demonstrate advanced coal technology. NNSA funding in the omnibus would exceed both the FY 2017 request and congressional appropriations for an increase of $412 million or 3.3 percent above FY 2016.

National Institutes of Health (Funding Table)

NIH is one of the big winners in the omnibus with a $2 billion increase above FY 2016 levels, good for a 6.2 percent increase. This is partly facilitated by the extra $352 million provided by last year’s 21st Century Cures Act, included in this bill. As in past years, appropriators granted special attention to Alzheimer’s research, with the National Institute on Aging slated for a 28.0 percent increase, the largest of any institute. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), NIH’s second largest institute, would be granted a large $277 million or 6.0 percent boost; NIAID was the recent recipient of $152 million in emergency Zika funding for researching potential vaccines. General Medical Sciences, which conducts core basic research on biological processes and living systems, was granted a substantial 5.5 percent increase, which is above the appropriations amounts in both chambers. Most other institutes would receive increases at least at the rate of inflation. The omnibus also funds the Precision Medicine Initiative at $120 million; the BRAIN Initiative at $110 million; and antibiotic resistance research at $50 million, all increases. An extra $300 million was also transferred to the National Cancer Institute in accord with 21st Century Cures and its support of President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot, leading to a 9.1 percent increase for NCI overall. 

National Science Foundation (Funding Table)

NSF’s total budget would be flat-funded, following relatively unambitious spending proposals from the Obama White House and Congress this past year. The agency’s R&RA account, which funds the six research directorates, would remain equal to FY 2016 levels. NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, which funds a wide array of STEM education programs, would also see flat funding. The omnibus does include a plus-up for NSF research facilities as requested by the Senate to begin planning and construction of a third Regional Class Research Vessel (RCRV), rather than the two RCRVs included in the FY 2017 request.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Funding Table)

The total NASA budget came out at a full $1.4 billion above the FY 2017 discretionary request, amidst strong congressional support for the space agency. Nearly all of the increase within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would go towards Planetary Science, including $275 million for a planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and $408 million for the Mars 2020 mission, as outlined by the House committee. Meanwhile, Earth Sciences would be flat-funded from the previous year, managing to avoid a large $231 million or 12 percent cut slated by House appropriators. Astrophysics would be trimmed somewhat, with funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope falling $15 million below the Senate committee’s recommended level of $120 million, while Heliophysics would see a small gain.

Both the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle would receive the higher of the House and Senate recommended amounts. However, the Space Technology Mission Directorate would be flat-funded, and NASA’s Commercial Crew program would receive a $59 million or 4.7 percent cut as requested by the Obama Administration and Senate committee.  NASA Aeronautics funding would see a modest gain, though not nearly to the extent envisioned by House appropriators, who prescribed an 11.3 percent boost.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (Funding Table)

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s main in-house research arm, would see a $26 million or 2.3 percent increase in its research account, which is significantly more than recommended by House appropriators, but somewhat less than their Senate counterparts. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the extramural funding agency of USDA, which would receive an overall $32 million boost, mostly due to a $25 million increase for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA’s growing competitive grants program. The 7.1 percent boost matches the FY 2017 request and earlier recommendations from the House and Senate, and continues the recent support for the program. Both the Economic Research Service and the National Agriculture Statistics Service would see increases near the rate of inflation. The Forest Service research and wildland fire R&D accounts would be flat-funded or slightly reduced.

U.S. Geological Survey (Funding Table)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would see minimal funding change, with a small 2.2 percent increase provided in the FY 2017 omnibus. Within USGS, the Climate and Land Use Change account would receive a 6.6 percent increase to support a Senate directive for Arctic research as well as land remote sensing activities; climate R&D would take a 10.2 percent cut. Landsat-9 development is fully funded in the bill. The Natural Hazards account within USGS would receive additional funding above FY 2016 for continued development of an earthquake early warning system and volcano detection.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (Funding Table)

NIST’s core laboratories, funded through the STRS account, would be flat-funded from the previous year, despite a moderate increase recommended by the Senate committee. Funding for both the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) and the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) would remain the same as last year’s level; NNMI was a target for reductions by House appropriators. The budget for NIST’s construction of research facilities would drop by $10 million or 8.4 percent below last year’s levels, whereas the House had levied a substantial 58 percent cut.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Funding Table)

NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would see an overall substantial $32 million or 6.7 percent increase above FY 2016, with funding prioritized for weather and air chemistry research. NOAA Climate Research, which was targeted for a large 19 percent cut by House appropriators, would instead see flat funding in FY 2017. Great Lakes research would see a small uptick. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service (NWS) would remain at essentially last year's estimated funding levels, despite both House and Senate calls for increases to the NWS budget. Funding for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) matched across both chambers and the White House request.

Environmental Protection Agency (Funding Table)

The total EPA discretionary budget would decrease by a slight 1.0 percent below FY 2016. EPA’s Science and Technology account would drop by an estimated $16 million or 3.3 percent below last year’s level. The Air, Climate and Energy program would receive flat funding, as opposed to the House and Senate cuts. Select research activities within EPA’s Superfund account would be reduced.