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In House Appropriations, NASA Gains While NSF and Commerce Don't

Yesterday, hours before the House passed a directly relevant America COMPETES reauthorization bill, the House Appropriations Committee passed on a voice vote the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill. The bill (PDF) provides funding for key agencies on the R&D front: National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Department of Commerce, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The overall bill would provide a small increase in R&D funding from FY 2015, but below the request, as House appropriators continue to abide by sequester-level spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act. While NASA R&D picked up slightly more than the President’s request, NSF fared less well.

To summarize the budget totals (scroll down for more detail. All R&D figures are current AAAS estimates):

  • The total NSF budget would increase by 0.7 percent above FY 2015 funding and 4.3 percent below the request.
  • The total NASA budget would increase by 2.9 percent above FY 2015 funding – the same level as the request.
  • The total NIST budget would decrease by 1.0 percent below FY 2015 funding and decrease by 23.6 percent below the request.
  • The total NOAA budget would decrease by 5.2 percent below FY 2015 funding and 13.6 percent below the request.

NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (download budget table)

The Committee fell short of the President’s request for NSF by $329 million dollars, with cuts below the request to research activities, education programs, and agency operations. Along with this decrease comes a provision on page 63 of the associated committee report (PDF) that “directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities.” These accounts comprise what Committee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) has termed “core science” – meaning that geological and social and behavioral research would be significantly cut. The table linked above thus reallocates the research increase proportionally across the four other directorates for illustrative purposes.

Based on these estimates, this means that all directorates within NSF would fail to keep pace with inflation in FY 2016. The chart at right shows the otherwise general upward trajectory over the past several years.

Additionally, the Committee provided $146 million for neuroscience and cognitive science activities at NSF, including the BRAIN Initiative; this represents a $46 million increase above FY 2015, and includes $3 million for the establishment of a National Brain Observatory working group. The Committee also provided $176.6 million for NSF's advanced manufacturing investments, matching the request and providing a slight increase above FY 2015, and kept flat the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), rather than granting the increase sought by the Administration. A cut is also slated for NSF’s headquarters move in 2017 from Ballston to Alexandria in Northern Virginia.

An amendment offered by Rep. David Price (D-NC) sought to increase NSF funding to match the request. While Price’s amendment failed, Culberson suggested during the proceedings that extra funding could be provided to NSF should a broader deal on discretionary spending be reached.

NASA (download budget table)

The Committee granted an overall $519 million increase to NASA, thereby matching the President’s request and allowing the agency to keep pace with inflation, unlike NSF. It would also keep NASA’s budget ahead of the overall spending curve, as the discretionary budget is only slated to increase by 0.2 percent in FY 2016. However, spending would be reallocated among various agency programs to achieve the “balanced portfolio” sought by Republicans.

The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) remains a source of enduring tension, given claims that SMD’s budget has received a disproportionate increase, and that its taking on climate science programs better left to NOAA and USGS. Under the Committee’s CJS bill, the Earth Sciences program would be cut and funding shifted to Planetary Science, in part building on previous GOP efforts to increase funding for a robotic mission to Europa. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) offered and subsequently withdrew for lack of support an amendment to increase funding for NASA Earth Science to equal the President’s request.

The Committee would also eliminate an increase sought for NASA’s Space Technology program, which in part contains funding for the Administration’s proposed controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission. The Aeronautics Research Directorate would be cut, but not by as much as requested.

NASA’s human exploration activities include the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System (SLS) program, of which the latter would receive a substantial increase from the President’s request, continuing the long-standing dispute between Congress and the Administration over the relative priority of building SLS versus commercial crew. The House appropriations bill does provide an increase for Commercial Spaceflight in FY 2016, but 19.6 percent less than what the President had hoped for.

COMMERCE: NIST and NOAA (download budget table)

Appropriations for the two major R&D agencies in the Department of Commerce fell far short of what the Administration requested for next fiscal year.

NIST funding would remain 23.6 percent below the President’s request, and any increases would be limited to NIST’s laboratory programs including for cybersecurity and disaster resiliency. Funding for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership would stay flat, while the Committee declined a requested increase for the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a multi-agency initiative setting up public-private manufacturing institutes across the country.  

NOAA received considerably less than what the President requested in the FY 2016 budget. Where divergence occurs to a significant degree is within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which carries out climate research. All other accounts would be funded well below the request, and only the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service would see any gains. Additionally, the Committee granted funding increases for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

An amendment introduced by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) which was accepted during markup will increase funds for the NOAA Bay Watershed and Training education program by $7.2 million, offset by a cut to the NOAA Administrative account. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) also offered and withdrew an amendment that would have boosted funding at NOAA.

Next Steps

The Administration has publicly expressed concern with the provisions and funding levels in the CJS bill. Prior to markup, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget released a statement that opposes locking in sequestration and increasing defense without increasing non-defense discretionary accounts.

The bill now moves to consideration by the full House of Representatives.