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Following the Omnibus, Most Science Agencies Are At (Or Near) Pre-Sequestration Funding

Three years after sequestration, Congress is allowing agency budgets to claw back.

The past few years have doubtlessly been tough ones for science agency budgets. Even with multiple adjustments by Congress, the spending caps under the Budget Control Act and the FY 2013 sequestration have meant billions in lost funding since FY 2012. But the prior two appropriations cycles have offered a nascent funding recovery, and the recent omnibus package provided another strong boost. That means at least one piece of welcome news: in FY 2016, many science agencies will now find themselves back at pre-sequestration budget levels, even adjusting for inflation.

It’s worth remembering that at the start of this appropriations cycle, discretionary spending was scheduled to be virtually flat in FY 2016. It was much the same in the prior year, dealing with FY 2015 appropriations, and most agencies saw little if any gain then, as the charts below show. Any expectations for funding outcomes this year had to be similarly limited – that is, until Congress passed their October budget deal to achieve a more than five percent increase in the discretionary budget. That deal turned the prospect of flat funding into increases for most agencies, and many agency budgets continue to outpace overall discretionary spending.

The charts below (with additional commentary) show relative changes in the budgets for most major R&D agencies and programs since FY 2012, the last year before sequestration kicked in. Also shown are changes in base discretionary spending over that time. This is an important metric with which to judge, as federal R&D tends to track discretionary spending – and one implication of the data is that federal science and technology budgets have fared relatively well compared to other non-mandatory spending, surprising though it may be. All data has been adjusted for inflation. Core data for these are provided in this table.


The Department of Energy (DOE) applied technology programs – including fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy research, energy efficiency, grid-related research, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) – generally did well in the omnibus, following similar gains in FY 2014. Each individual program’s budget is now at least 8.6 percent above FY 2012 levels.

Combined funding for Department of Agriculture (USDA) research offices actually returned to inflation-adjusted pre-sequestration levels in FY 2014, according to agency data. Following the omnibus, funding for the intramural Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is now 16.4 percent above FY 2012 levels, the highest increase among USDA offices. The ARS figure is pulled up by a major influx of omnibus funding for lab construction and modernization. Also showing steady growth is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA’s premier competitive grants program. AFRI funding in FY 2016 is 24.7 percent above FY 2012 levels.

Following some initially steep cuts, recovery in the Department of Defense science and technology accounts has been led in part by basic research funding, which is now 8.0 percent above FY 2012 levels after the omnibus. This is especially true for Army and Navy programs. But in that time, DARPA funding is down by 4.1 percent.

NASA’s recent recovery, thanks to strong omnibus figures, appears largely driven by growth in Exploration activities, which are up by 33.8 percent compared to FY 2012. While Orion program funding is now about even with FY 2012, the Space Launch System budget is 25.6 percent higher, and the occasionally controversial Commercial Crew program is now nearly triple what it was. Following the omnibus, Science Directorate funding is 3.6 percent above FY 2012. The only program still below pre-sequestration funding is Heliophysics, while James Webb Space Telescope funding is now 12.4 percent higher, according to NASA data.

Not shown in either of these charts is funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s main R&D offices, specifically the Science and Technology Directorate and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Combined funding for these offices – totaling $1.1 billion in the omnibus – is now 10.7 percent above pre-sequestration levels, according to DHS data. Funding was particularly elevated in FY 2014 and FY 2015, when Congress provided at least $300 million extra each year for construction of the new National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility. Also not shown are the Department of Commerce’s R&D arms, NOAA and NIST, both of which have done well – surprisingly so – on the research funding front.


DOE’s Office of Science (SC) is nearly two percent above pre-sequestration funding levels, with a relatively strong appropriation in FY 2014 preceding another increase in the omnibus this year. The Advanced Scientific Computing Research program is now 36.3 percent above FY 2012 levels, reflecting a $162.9 million increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. Both figures are highest among SC programs. High-Energy Physics (HEP) and Biological and Environmental Research (BER) both remain at least three percent below FY 2012, however; the latter is partly due to climate battles.

The next few agencies all remain below FY 2012 levels, though two big ones are getting close. The National Science Foundation is following a somewhat different trajectory than other agencies, with strong growth immediately after the FY 2013 sequestration year tapering off in the omnibus. This is likely due in part to leadership changes in NSF’s appropriations subcommittee, which have in turn helped NASA. But NSF funding may also be a casualty of debates over social sciences and geosciences funding and the feud between the agency and the House Science Committee.

The National Institutes of Health had three difficult years before receiving a $2 billion boost from appropriators in the omnibus, which brings it nearer FY 2012 levels. However, the budget total is pulled up by the National Institute on Aging, which is now more than 30 percent above FY 2012 dollars (thanks to an enormous funding influx for Alzheimer’s research); and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which has been on an uneven growth path since its creation in 2011. The National Library of Medicine and programs in the Office of the Director have also received somewhat higher funding. Otherwise, most individual institutes remain at least a few percentage points below FY 2012 funding in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Lastly, neither the U.S. Geological Survey nor the Environmental Protection Agency has shared much in the wealth of late. EPA’s science budget has been a casualty of fights over climate change and regulation.

Calls for stable and predictable funding are often heard in the halls of Congress, but science budgets have not often reflected those aspirations in recent years. Since FY 2012, collective funding for the agencies listed above was $10.5 billion less than it would have been had budgets simply kept pace with inflation, a modest goal, rather than been subject to caps and sequesters. Congress has already locked in an essentially flat budget for FY 2017, which means this year’s gains are unlikely to be replicated, and beyond FY 2017 sequestration-level spending is still the law of the land. But for now at least, Congress has given science agencies better fiscal news than they’ve had for some time.


Cover Image Credit: Architect of the Capitol