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FY 2017 R&D Appropriations So Far: A Roundup

With Congress back in session after summer recess, a look at where appropriations stand for science agencies.

Congress has returned from the August recess with FY 2017 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 more detail on major science agencies.


Coming into the current appropriations cycle, the President and Congress had limited fiscal room with which to work. Discretionary spending – the part of the budget adjusted annually by appropriators, and the source of most federal science funding – was slated to be held flat at $1.07 trillion, under the second and final year of the Bipartisan Budget Act. Accordingly, the President’s discretionary R&D budget, released in February, set rather modest goals for federal R&D in FY 2017. Some standard Obama Administration priorities like clean energy and climate were again prominent, but some agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) received only limited discretionary increases, while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA faced billion-dollar cuts. The Administration attempted to supplement this relatively unambitious discretionary budget by proposing an additional $4.2 billion in mandatory funding for nondefense R&D, but Congress quickly rejected these collective mandatory proposals.

Within Congress, several lines of dispute have irretrievably disrupted the appropriations process. To start, intraparty Republican disagreement over spending levels emerged early on. Even though Congress has already agreed on a discretionary spending target for FY 2017 under the aforementioned budget deal, and with Republican leadership still supportive of that deal, legislators have been unable to produce a budget resolution, thanks to a vocal conservative minority led by the House Freedom Caucus that wants to see deeper cuts.[1] Legislators have also sparred over whether to use war funding to get around the current spending caps (see the Department of Defense section below). And progress over spending bills – including the Zika supplemental funding, the fate of which is still to be determined [Sept. 30 update: Congress has approved $1.1 billion in Zika funding as part of its continuing resolution] – has been marred by policy riders on a wide range of topics from both parties in both chambers.


As a result, while the appropriations committees in both chambers have each completed their work and approved all twelve necessary spending bills, only a handful of these bills have been approved on either chamber’s floor. At the time of this writing, Congressional passage of a continuing resolution to avoid a shutdown on October 1 is likely, though once again there have been disputes over the duration of such a measure [Sept. 30 update: Congress has indeed passed a continuing resolution through December 9]. Odds would seem to favor an eventual omnibus spending package that cobbles together the remaining spending bills, perhaps in December, though time will tell.

For science and technology agencies, the current situation means yet another year of budget uncertainty under a several-week continuing resolution and an extended appropriations process. Even so, a fairly clear funding picture has emerged with the complete set of twelve appropriations bills already through committee, and appropriators’ decisions so far will factor into omnibus negotiations later. Below is a summary of where things stand for some of the largest agencies.



According to the latest AAAS estimates, both the House and Senate would provide moderate increases to federal R&D overall in FY 2017: the House would provide a $3.1 billion or 2.1 percent increase for R&D above FY 2016 levels, while the Senate would provide a $4.7 billion or 3.2 percent increase (see table). Both amounts would represent real-dollar increases given a rate of inflation of 1.8 percent. Both chambers have also been somewhat more generous than the President overall.

There are three primary drivers of these moderate increases in both chambers. First, there were modest funding increases for the R&D accounts within the Department of Defense (DOD), which add up to a nearly billion-dollar increase in the House and a $1.5 billion increase in the Senate. Second, NIH has stood out as a significant recipient of Congressional largesse: the health research agency has received a $1 billion increase in the House and a $2 billion increase in the Senate. Third, both chambers provided an apparently large funding increase for R&D activities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). However, it should be noted that this increase does not actually reflect changes in the underlying appropriations accounts, which are much more modest, and instead appears to be due in part to accounting factors in the budget request(see the Department of Energy section below for actual appropriations figures for NNSA).


In years past, Congress would at times exhibit a mild preference for defense R&D (which includes DOD and NNSA) over nondefense R&D (which includes everything else science-related). Such a preference is somewhat harder to see this year. While the latest estimates do show defense R&D with a relatively larger gain, as seen in the overview table, this is mostly due to the “artificial” NNSA R&D increase mentioned above, while DOD, the bigger driver of defense-related R&D, would receive a more modest increase in line with nondefense R&D. At the same time, the rise in nondefense R&D is due entirely to the NIH increase, in a year when most other science and technology programs have seen only minimal funding changes from the prior year.


Also noteworthy is the distribution of funding between research and development. Because the President’s base budget had sought billion-dollar cuts to NIH and NASA, as well as a deep cut to DOD basic research, it tallied up to a more than two percent reduction to basic research funding, and a smaller cut to applied research. Because Congress has resoundingly turned down the NIH and NASA cuts, and partially turned down the DOD research cuts, both House and Senate appropriations so far add up to at least two percent increases for both basic and applied research (see chart above).

Lastly, with the moderate bicameral increases discussed, federal R&D as a share of the U.S. economy would reach 0.78 percent under current House appropriations and 0.79 percent under Senate appropriations, both on par with recent years (see chart).