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Early Notes on the President's Budget

A mixed bag of limited growth and cuts in the base discretionary budget while the White House relies on new mandatory spending.


Note: Material in this recap has been superceded by the updated data and information contained in our full report on the FY 2017 budget.

Tuesday’s budget request – the final one from the Obama Administration – proposes $152.3 billion in R&D, good for a $6.2 billion or 4.2 percent increase, according to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) figures. However, it must be noted that the request takes a rather unusual shape: while most R&D is typically housed in the discretionary budget – the portion of the budget that Congress allocates every year through the appropriations process – this year the Administration has turned to new mandatory spending to fund many of their proposals. Mandatory spending is not subject to the budget caps adopted last fall, which only allow essentially flat funding in FY 2017, with a cap of $1.07 trillion. However, mandatory spending also requires new legislation to implement, and it must be deficit-neutral under so-called PAYGO rules, which means it must be paid for somehow through either revenue increases or spending cuts. It can also be multiyear. These characteristics make it a different animal than “normal” appropriations (also keep in mind, most of the federal budget falls into the mandatory category, including the big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid).

New mandatory spending actually accounts for most of the spending increase in the FY 2017 R&D budget, accounting for $4 billion of the aforementioned $6.2 billion increase according to OMB. If we focus on only discretionary spending (and previously-approved mandatory spending, a drop in the bucket) for R&D, setting aside the new mandatory proposals, the President’s budget only yields a $2.2 billion increase in the base R&D budget, meaning a sub-inflation increase of only about 1.5 percent. The Administration’s budget includes a 2.9 percent increase for basic science, but again, much of this will be contained in mandatory spending proposals, which face uncertain odds. All of this is based on OMB data, and we may update this in the coming weeks.

This is an uncommon strategy: while there are some R&D programs contained in the mandatory budget, usually these are small or conceived for a specific purpose. For instance, the Farm Bill directs $3 million per year to a biomass R&D program at the Department of Agriculture, and another program directs funding to NIH for diabetes research. The Administration also typically proposes a large mandatory commitment for an advanced manufacturing network. The proposals this year are more of a shotgun approach, with virtually every major science agency budget containing mandatory components to varying degrees.


That means individual agency budgets look very different depending on how one handicaps the odds for these new mandatory proposals. For instance, the total National Science Foundation budget is up by 6.7 percent from FY 2016 levels, but that includes a discretionary budget increase of only 1.3 percent. The base discretionary budget for NIH would actually be cut by $1 billion, but the Administration would offset this cut with a $1.8 billion mandatory package. The chart at right shows percentage change in total R&D funding, including both mandatory and discretionary spending; for some agencies, mandatory spending is the lion’s share of the increase.

Lastly: it should be noted that it’s hard to imagine Congress embracing this raft of new spending for a variety of reasons – for instance, multiyear mandatory spending takes power out of the hands of appropriators, and finding ways to keep this new spending budget-neutral will be a challenge. Of course, the budget was already facing an uphill battle anyway.

We’ll provide much more detail in the coming weeks; some quick agency notes are below. Also see ScienceInsider for ongoing coverage.

Department of Defense. Basic research activities would be cut again this year, by 9.0 percent or $205 million across every military branch, and applied research would also be reduced according to OMB figures (last year’s omnibus saw Congress refute similar cuts to basic research). On the other hand, DARPA would receive a 3.7 percent increase.

National Institutes of Health. The President’s budget would provide $33.1 billion for NIH at the program level, an $825 million or 2.6 percent increase above FY 2016 levels. However, as mentioned above, the NIH request includes $1.8 billion in mandatory funding, which accounts entirely for this increase. That $825 million boost is entirely devoted to cancer research, the BRAIN Initiative, and the Precision Medicine Initiative. Most individual institutes would remain only flat even with this extra spending package; take away that mandatory package and NIH is facing a $1 billion cut.

Department of Energy. The Office of Science (SC) budget includes a mandatory component, but a small one: only $100 million for university grants. Otherwise, SC would receive a 4.2 percent increase, with the largest relative gains for Advanced Computing and Biological and Environmental Research; the former is in support of exascale computing, while the latter is mostly for boosts to genomic science. Domestic fusion research would again face major cuts of 15.4 percent, while the international fusion energy project, ITER, would receive $125 million, a $10 million or 8.7 percent increase.

Among the applied programs, energy efficiency and renewables are again prioritized with a 40.1 percent increase in the base budget, plus an additional $1.3 billion in mandatory funding via the President’s 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan, paid for by a fee on oil companies. Net funding for fossil energy R&D would again be deeply cut, this time by 43 percent below FY 2016 levels, while nuclear energy R&D would remain nearly flat.

Department of Agriculture. The intramural Agricultural Research Service would receive a $100 million cut, though this is entirely due to reduced funding for facilities construction and modernization following a major appropriation in FY 2016; research activities would receive a modest two percent increase. Within the extramural National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Administration has said they’re seeking to double the competitive Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) from $350 million to $700 million. However, AFRI’s discretionary budget would only rise by 7.1 percent. The remaining $325 million increase would come via a mandatory proposal, spread over multiple years.

National Science Foundation. The Administration requests $8 billion for NSF, a 6.7 percent boost over FY 2016. However, $400 million of the agency’s $500 million requested increase would come from mandatory funds, meaning only a $100 million or 1.3 percent increase in the base discretionary budget. Similarly, NSF’s main Research & Related Activities account would see a 6.5 percent increase in total, but only a 0.8 percent increase in discretionary levels. Among the directorates, only Engineering would see a substantial increase in the base budget, a gain of 3.3 percent. The other five directorates would all see increases of less than 0.5 percent each, before inflation.

NASA. Like other agencies, the President’s NASA budget relies on mandatory spending to make up for a very modest base budget. The total request for NASA is $19 billion, a $260 million or 1.4 percent decrease from last year’s level, but this includes a mandatory proposal for $763 million, divvied up among multiple programs. The base NASA discretionary budget, therefore, is only $18.3 billion, representing a $1 billion or 5.3 percent reduction. The Science budget is essentially flat-funded at $5.6 billion, with $298 in mandatory funding spread across the Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics programs. Both Aeronautics and Space Technology would receive large boosts, almost entirely out of new mandatory spending. Unsurprisingly, NASA Exploration activities are headed for steep cuts of 17.2 percent below FY 2016.

Interior. The Administration requests $1.2 billion for the U.S. Geological Survey, a $106.8 million or 10 percent increase over FY 2016. The agency’s main research accounts would all see substantial gains in the proposed budget. Funding for the Climate and Land Use Change account, in particular, receives $31.5 million or a 22.4 percent hike.

EPA. The President’s budget requests $8.3 billion for EPA, a $127.3 million or 1.6 percent increase over FY 2016. Most Science & Technology accounts received funding boosts, notably Clean Air and Climate, which was given an $11.6 million or 10 percent increase.

NIST. NIST’s Scientific and Technical Research Services accounts would see a $40.5 million or 5.9 percent gain under the President’s budget request. The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership would be increased by $12 million, while the agency’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) would grow by $22 million, taking the total NNMI budget to $47 million for FY 2017; a separate $1.9 billion in mandatory funds was included to fully fund a network of 45 Institutes by FY 2025.

NOAA. NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research was given a $31.5 million or 6.8 percent increase, which includes a substantial 20 percent boost for Climate Research. The GOES-R Series program would be decreased by $119 million from FY 2016 enacted, while the Polar Follow On satellites were increased by $23 million. Funding for new vessel construction would see a decrease of $51 million in FY 2017, as NOAA plans to use remaining funds from the prior year to complete a regional survey vessel as part of a multi-year fleet ship recapitalization initiative.