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Modest Science Appropriations, Few Surprises So Far

We’re now two months into the appropriations cycle for the 2016 fiscal year, and there haven’t been too many surprises so far. Here are a few items worth mulling.

Sequestration-Level Caps Appear to Be Doing Their Job


Typically, aggregate R&D spending overall doesn’t tend to change much as a share of the discretionary budget (see chart), though certain individual agencies can have good fiscal runs in which they rise above the overall discretionary curve. For FY 2016, the current discretionary spending caps, established by the Budget Control Act and reinforced by the Congressional budget resolution, allow only a 0.2 percent increase in spending.  The President had asked for a much larger increase, but so far that request has been rebuffed.

Given these facts, one would expect appropriations for many science and technology agencies to be modest, with certain favored programs faring a bit better budget-wise, and that is what’s happened so far. The table below tells the story as of June 16: multiple science and technology agencies are looking at FY 2016 appropriations at or below the rate of inflation, which stands at 1.6 percent, though there are some exceptions, as can be seen (more on those exceptions below).

The numbers shown aren’t the final word of course: Democrats and many Republicans would like to see some kind of a fix to get extra room under the spending caps, and have said so. The problem is finding a way to pay for it. But for evidence of what can happen should a deal be reached, one need look no further than FY 2014 when, following the sequester year and the shutdown, the Bipartisan Budget Act partially rolled back the spending cuts that year, and these changes helped agency budgets rebound across the board (see figure below).


At the moment, odds appear decent that a modest deal may eventually be reached even with recent shutdown talk, but the issue may not be resolved for months. In the meantime, we have a game of filibuster chicken in the Senate, first over defense spending.

The Cardinals’ Influence is Apparent

The exceptions mentioned above are not at all surprising, given the current “cardinals,” or chairs of the relevant appropriations subcommittees, who are typically powerful in shaping the spending agenda.

In the House, NASA is a favorite of new Commerce, Justice, Science Chairman John Culberson (R-TX), particularly the agency’s planetary science and space exploration programs. In the House bill, both of these areas were boosted while the Planetary Science program’s parent Science Mission Directorate was cut slightly overall. Elsewhere in the House, Labor-HHS Chairman Tom Cole (R-TX) has been a supporter of NIH, particularly the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program, which benefits institutions in states on the lower end of federal science funding like Cole’s Oklahoma, and which would receive a large 14.1 percent increase in the House bill. NIH’s overall $1.1 billion increase at the program level is certainly notable.

Over in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) runs the Energy & Water Subcommittee, and has long been a proponent of nuclear energy, funding for which accounts for more than half of the $218 million Senate increase in DOE’s energy programs. Alexander has also been a supporter of the Office of Science, which may help explain the marginally higher number in the Senate than the House. And Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran (R-MS), who also heads the Defense Subcommittee, has been publicly supportive of Department of Defense research programs in the past (as has the subcommittee’s ranking member Sen. Dick Durbin [D-IL]). Their subcommittee recently turned away the Administration’s attempt to cut basic research in the request, whereas the House mostly adopted it.

Climate and Energy Funding Remain the Big Points of Dispute

With apologies to the social sciences, there probably isn’t an R&D funding area as divisive as climate research and other emissions-related programs on renewable energy and efficiency – not only between the parties, but between the House and the Senate as well (see chart).

On the energy front, the President had requested major increases in efficiency and renewable energy R&D, but the House in particular takes the opposite tack. Both House and Senate appropriators in the majority remain fans of fossil energy R&D, while the House has stripped emissions reduction from the mission of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The lone area in which there seems to be general agreement is in the Office of Nuclear Energy.

In the broader climate and environmental research realm, the House has shown hostility to such funding by, for instance, voting to block funding for DOE’s new Climate Model Development and Validation program. On the other hand, the Senate has been more moderate, especially in the realm of NASA earth sciences. Senate appropriators came surprisingly close to the request, not long after retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the committee’s ranking member, pledged to fight for additional NASA funding. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is located in Maryland.

These spending differences emphasize the partisan battles over policy provisions attempting to restrict EPA powers and other federal activities related to climate assessment, mitigation, and adaption.

Cover image credit: Architect of the Capitol Flickr