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FY 2016 R&D Appropriations So Far: A Roundup

See also: Interagency Initiatives supplement

Congress has returned from the August recess with FY 2016 appropriations still unfinished and less than a month left in the fiscal year, but a long wait is likely before funding decisions are finalized. Here’s a brief look at R&D appropriations so far; download the full summary for a look at major science agencies.


Coming into the appropriations cycle, President Obama had requested $146.4 billion in R&D, good for a 6.5 percent increase per updated AAAS estimates, with larger relative increases for development and smaller for basic and applied research. As in years past, the President’s request emphasized certain priorities like energy efficiency and renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, climate science, neuroscience, and advanced computing, among others, as well as new initiatives on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and precision medicine. To carry out these and other priorities, several agencies would receive significant increases in the President’s budget.

But, of course, these increases would have to be facilitated by a corresponding increase in discretionary spending, a central and controversial element of the President’s budget. Under current law, discretionary spending must live at the post-sequestration level of $1.016 trillion in FY 2016, nearly flat for the second straight year. The President and most Democrats want the cap increased by $71 billion or 7.2 percent, to $1.087 trillion, rolling back most of the spending reductions under current law. The requested increase would apply to both defense and nondefense discretionary spending.


Congress opted instead to set spending at current-law levels in its own budget resolution, passed in May for the first time in six years.[1] Even so, a deal remains possible. Most Republicans would embrace a defense increase, and defense hawks have already used the war budget, dubbed Overseas Contingency Operation or OCO spending, to controversially secure extra dollars for the Department of Defense while avoiding the statutory caps (see the Defense Department section below for more). Many in the majority would also accept a nondefense increase, but only as part of a deficit-neutral package. But formal negotiations on this have not yet commenced at the time of this writing, and the parties remain split. The President has threatened to veto, and Senate Democrats have blocked, every spending bill. In the House, six of twelve bills were adopted before the process was derailed in part by policy riders. A continuing resolution will be necessary to avoid a shutdown on October 1, but even that remains uncertain given the debate over federal funding of Planned Parenthood.


In spite of the constraints on discretionary spending, appropriators have provided some gains to federal R&D. Per current AAAS estimates, House appropriations for R&D are 2.9 percent below the President’s request but still 3.4 percent or $4.7 billion above FY 2015 levels, while Senate appropriations have actually managed to match the request, granting a 6.5 percent or $8.9 billion increase above FY 2015 (see table at right).

However, any consideration of Congressional decisions on science funding must recall that appropriators have been operating under sequestration-level caps for nondefense spending while adding an extra $35 billion or more to the Pentagon’s OCO budget. This has helped to enable relatively large increases for defense R&D while funding for most nondefense R&D agencies is constrained.

The preference for defense over nondefense R&D this cycle is reflected in breakdowns of R&D by character. The President’s budget sought an $8.9 billion increase in FY 2016, but two-thirds of this was entirely accounted for by an increase for DOD development activities. Development in the FY 2016 budget was slated for a 10 percent increase, with basic and applied research increased by less than three percent. It has been a similar story in appropriations so far (see chart at right).

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the President’s budget and the current Senate total would return total federal R&D to within a few billion dollars of pre-sequestration FY 2012 while, the current House figures would represent a much slower R&D recovery. Per current AAAS estimates, federal R&D would remain slightly below 0.8 percent of gross domestic product in the President’s budget and House and Senate appropriations.

Download the full summary for more.