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Science Funding Roundup: Congress Returns With a Packed Agenda

Biomedical research, advanced computing, DARPA, and other programs could get boosts this month, as Congress continues to go its own way on science funding.

Congress is back in session with limited time to advance FY 2019 appropriations and the end of the fiscal year looming October 1. Appropriators have made faster progress this spring and summer than they have in years, with eight bills already approved by the full House and nine by the Senate (mostly rejecting the Trump Administration’s R&D budget in the process). However, none have yet been finalized via conference committee – in which legislators from both chambers and parties resolve any outstanding differences between the House and Senate.

President Trump said earlier this year he would not sign another 2,000-page omnibus like the one from this spring, but he may not have to. Congress is moving forward on talks Wednesday over the energy, veterans, and Legislative Branch spending bills, representing the first package of spending legislation to be considered. The House has also named conferees to meet with the Senate on its Defense and Labor, HHS, & Education bills (the latter of which funds, among many other things, NIH and CDC).

Also in the mix are the Agriculture and Interior & Environment bills (the latter of which funds EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey). Altogether, as many as nine out of twelve spending bills, accounting for most of the federal discretionary budget, might be completed this month, depending on timing and policy hangups. While Congressional leadership is eager to make progress, any agencies that don’t get a final appropriation before October 1 are likely facing a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to keep the lights on, perhaps extending into December after the midterms (unless, of course, government is shut down, which remains a possibility). The CR fate almost certainly awaits NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Commerce, State, and Homeland Security, which haven’t yet received floor votes in either chamber.

With that background in mind, here’s a short rundown of funding as-it-stands for those science agencies that might see final negotiations this month. See also the AAAS Appropriations Dashboard for more details.


Where the House and Senate Agree: Following a big increase in last spring’s omnibus, both chambers have approved increases of at least 5.4 percent for the Office of Science. The biggest winner here is again advanced computing, which was boosted by at least 12.9 percent in both chambers. These plus-ups include varying increases for advanced facilities at Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Berkeley, and for the Exascale Computing Project. Beyond computing, High Energy Physics was also increased by at least 10.6 percent in both chambers, with most of those increases for construction of projects like the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment and Fermilab’s PIP II. Most other programs were protected from Administration-proposed cuts


Elsewhere, both chambers emphatically protected the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a favorite White House target for elimination, and would add substantial additional funding to DOE’s new grid cybersecurity office. Both chambers would protect DOE’s manufacturing institutes and innovation hubs on advanced materials and nuclear modeling, all of which had been slated for elimination. Advanced reactor technology R&D would ramp up substantially, especially in the House, which provided $100 million for public-private partnerships on small modular reactor R&D and design. Finally, both chambers have rejected the proposed rampdown of the Omega laser at the University of Rochester (pictured at right).

Where They Disagree: While both chambers agree on increasing basic science at the Office of Science, in several areas they disagree on how much – particularly fusion energy research. While the House would ramp up domestic R&D and U.S. contributions to the international fusion project ITER, the Senate would flat-fund ITER and cut funding for the domestic research program by 26 percent. This savings allows Senate appropriators to be a bit more generous in several areas. For instance, House funding for DOE light sources, neutron sources, and nanoscale centers is flat or slightly increased, while the Senate provided marginally more funding for each.

Renewables and efficiency R&D was cut by 10.3 percent in the House, including a 21.8 percent reduction for solar and an 18.5 percent reduction for building efficiency R&D. The House also adopted a 45 percent plus-up for advanced coal technology R&D, including funding for advanced coal pilots, while trimming carbon capture and storage activities. The Senate generally adopted much more limited changes to these programs.


Where the House and Senate Agree: Both would grant the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) a sizable increase of at least 10.3 percent, though the House would generally match the DARPA budget request, while the Senate would provide increases for artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons while cutting back biotechnology, materials research, and some other areas. Both chambers would also cut back applied research funding, though the Senate is tougher on the Army while the House would save their largest cuts for the Navy. Both chambers would also cut back DOD’s manufacturing science and technology program, by 38 percent in the House and 14 percent in the Senate.

Where They Disagree: Several areas, in fact, starting with basic science: the House would trim back DOD basic research by 1.7 percent while the Senate would give a big 19.4 percent boost, including a modest increase for DOD university partnerships and a larger increase for the military’s Defense Research Sciences programs. The National Defense Education Program, which supports STEM learning, would also see a big drop below FY 2018 levels in the House by 16.8 percent (as requested), while the Senate would nearly double spending on the program.


Where the House and Senate Agree: Appropriators are mostly in agreement over NIH matters – including the basic notion that NIH should get at least a billion-dollar increase for the fourth year in a row (specifically, a $1.25 billion increase in the House and a $2 billion increase in the Senate). Legislators also continue to highlight Alzheimer’s research as their major priority: both chambers would grant such research at least a $401 million increase, bringing the National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s effort up to the neighborhood of $2.3 billion (NIA gets the largest increase of any institute in both chambers, by at least 16.8 percent).

These funding increases generally include plus-ups for several high-profile initiatives like the BRAIN Initiative, precision medicine, and antibiotic resistance research at NIAID. The Cancer Moonshot would also rise to $400 million, as scheduled in the 21st Century Cures Act. Legislators are also united in their support for recent NIH efforts on Down Syndrome, and in the search for a universal flu vaccine. Legislators in both chambers are also willing to increase support for NIH facilities to $200 million, a 55 percent increase, as requested by the White House.

Also notable is what they agree on not doing. Both chambers have rejected the Administration’s proposals to consolidate three new agencies within NIH: the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Both chambers have also rejected the Administration’s proposal to limit and reduce the salary cap for grant recipients.

Where They Disagree: As mentioned above, the Senate has been a bit more generous than the House. While the House bill would provide broad increases, most individual institutes would see their budgets rise by less than the rate of inflation. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), chair of the House subcommittee responsible for NIH funding, has reiterated his now-annual comment that the typically-lower House number is a “floor, not a ceiling,” which suggests NIH could again end up closer to the higher Senate figure if there’s room in the final bill. That extra Senate money meant additional funding for major priorities like opioids-related research, including $500 million split across the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.


Where the House and Senate Agree: Both chambers preserved funding for the endocrine disruptor and computational toxicology programs. As in prior years, House and Senate appropriators included a provision that prohibits EPA from using funds to implement a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system for livestock producers.

Where They Disagree: Overall EPA Science & Technology funding levels are at odds: the House recommended a total 8.9 percent cut while the Senate recommended a flat budget. Both chambers also clashed over the Administration’s “workforce reshaping” proposal to reduce the number of EPA scientists through organizational restructuring. The House included the requested funding for the workforce effort, while the Senate prohibited any proposed reorganizations, workforce adjustments, or downsizing of laboratories.


Where the House and Senate Agree: Both chambers preserved funding for the agency’s eight Climate Adaptation Science Centers. USGS cooperative research units, as well as the contaminant biology and toxic substances hydrology programs, were all shielded from proposed elimination. The agency’s earthquake and volcano monitoring systems were also protected, but funded at higher levels in the House. Landsat-9 was fully funded in both chambers.

Where They Disagree: Energy and mineral resources activities fared better under the Senate bill, with additional funding for the Administration’s new critical minerals initiative. Meanwhile, the House favored water-related research funding, particularly the National Groundwater and Streamflow Information Program.



Where the House and Senate Agree: Intramural research funded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) would see increases of at least 4.8 percent in both chambers, and legislators have rejected the proposed closure of nearly two dozen labs and research sites. Appropriators have also generally accepted the White House-proposed transfer of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) from the Department of Homeland Security to USDA, albeit with some concerns, reservations, and requests for information. NBAF has been under construction by DHS on the Kansas State University campus (pictured above as of February 2018), and will serve as a biosafety level 4 research center when complete in the next five years. USDA had planned to be the lead research partner of the DHS-owned facility, but the Administration wants to shift eventual ownership to USDA outright.

Legislators have also provided very modest increases for extramural research and extension, including moderate increases for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI, USDA’s premier competitive grants program; flat or moderate increases for select capacity grants; and preserved several small research programs within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from elimination. Appropriators also rejected cuts to the Economic Research Service and to core programs within the National Agricultural Statistics Service, as part of their general rejection of the Trump Administration’s ag research budget.

Where They Disagree: Beyond some modest differences over funding for certain accounts and programs, the largest difference between the two chambers is funding for ARS lab facilities. House appropriators would provide $136 million – near FY 2018 levels – for continued modernization, construction, and upgrades of ARS labs in accord with their Capital Investment Strategy. The Senate would provide no such funding.

Other agencies that could see final negotiations this month include:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs, where appropriators will negotiate between a smaller research program increase (1.4 percent) in the House and a larger (7.9 percent) increase in the Senate.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most programs would see fairly modest (if any) changes in both the House and the Senate, though the House would also establish a $300 million Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund (and not for the first time).
  • The Institute of Education Science, which gets essentially flat-funded in both chambers.