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Guide to the President’s Budget: Research & Development FY 2021

A review and summary of R&D funding proposals in the latest White House budget request to Congress.

FY 2021 White House science budget survey cover.

Note: This is the latest in a long-running annual series published by AAAS recapping presidential science budgets. It's important to remember that the President’s budget is a proposal, not a final document. Final decisions on annual spending are ultimately up to appropriators in Congress, who wield the “power of the purse.” Thus, the budget request is best seen as the start of negotiations between branches of government. Download Full Summary, and see the AAAS R&D Appropriations Dashboard for updates.

Overview and Context

A major element of the spending debate in 2019 over the 2020 fiscal year (FY) was whether the discretionary spending caps – adopted in 2011 – would be allowed to drop as required by existing law and force deep and wide spending cuts, or whether Congress would once again step in to resolve the issue, prevent the spending drop, and protect agencies and programs reliant on discretionary spending.

Congress did ultimately step in with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, a deal to raise the caps for two years. This included a more than $40 billion year-over-year increase in FY 2020, though a far smaller increase in FY 2021.

When Congress achieved this deal, it seemed to settle the debate in FY 2021, the final year of caps under the original Budget Control Act of 2011. But the White House did not see it this way: instead of adhering to the previous deal, the White House again recommended spending changes to increase the defense budget at the expense of the nondefense budget. For FY 2021, this meant the defense cap would have remained in place, allowing for a $5 billion or 0.8 percent increase in capped defense spending, while the nondefense cap declined by $36.5 billion below current law, and by $31.5 billion or 5.1 percent below FY 2020 levels (see table and graph).

Table showing current and proposed caps in FY 2021 budget request.

The White House would continue reducing nondefense spending by nearly $11 billion per year until the end of the decade, leading to a cumulative nondefense reduction of $1.6 trillion compared to the Office of Management and Budget’s current-services baseline. By FY 2030, nondefense discretionary spending would end up approximately 35 percent below current levels, adjusting for purchasing power.

These changes set the backdrop for another round of proposed reductions to federal research and development programs, which are outlined in the following pages. But within 24 hours, these broad recommendations were discarded by Congressional leadership, with several senior Democratic officials as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicating that appropriations would stick with the prior cap deal. These and other comments from key legislators are clear indication that, once again, the topline numbers presented by the Trump Administration would factor much less into appropriators’ thinking than the actual substance of research agencies’ budget requests, including program changes and new initiatives.

Graph of proposed and projected nondefense discretionary spending caps.


However, even without more stringent nondefense limits, current-law levels will still present a challenge for appropriators. With a less than one percent year-over-year increase (see table above), and an array of demands on the federal budget, it will likely be difficult to increase funding for priority investments while safeguarding spending for other programs, many of which may be popular with certain legislators or voting blocs. Appropriators will likely be faced with tough choices as they search for acceptable balance, and these tough choices will certainly extend to R&D programs as well.

For a survey of R&D priorities and highlights for research funding agencies, download the full report.