Senate FY18 Appropriations Preserve Investment in Key Science Programs

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Senate appropriators begin to step away from deep cuts in fiscal 2018 spending levels as outlined by the president’s budget blueprint and set down investments in the scientific and technology enterprise. | Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Senate appropriators moved this week to rise above some of the steep spending reductions included in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal that threaten to weaken the nation’s science and technology enterprise and blunt the economic benefits that science programs deliver.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s approval July 20 of its fiscal 2018 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, for instance, would restore spending for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and reverse the proposal to eliminate the program as outlined in the president’s fiscal 2018 budget plan.

"Our nation’s research enterprise is among the most powerful engines of American prosperity, producing value far beyond the sum of its individual parts," said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement. "A consistent area of bipartisan agreement over the past 70 years has been the importance of the federal government’s role in supporting research and innovation."

The Senate panel’s action also runs counter to the House Appropriations Committee, which decided to stick with the White House proposal to eliminate funding for the ARPA-E, a program designed to promote “revolutionary advances in fundamental and applied sciences” and further the nation’s standing as a global leader in innovation.

The agency was praised in a June National Academies report as a much-needed investment that can, given time, advance innovations in technology and energy. AAAS CEO Rush Holt sent a letter on July 18 to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources applauding its leaders for authorizing increased funding over the next five years for basic research, including the ARPA-E program, in the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017.

Restoration of ARPA-E spending provides an early sign that Senate appropriators are more willing to boost science spending levels and undo or limit the impact of some of the reductions included in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal for the nation’s research and development enterprise.

“I am pleased to see the bill preserves important investments in scientific research, ARPA-E, Army Corps infrastructure projects and drought resiliency,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., following the Senate panel’s action. She also applauded Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., for restoring funding as he had signaled after President Trump sent his budget plan to Congress in March. Alexander is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.

The House Appropriations Committee, which wrapped up its work on all 12 spending bills on July 18, has approved increased spending levels for several U.S. research and development programs compared to the non-defense discretionary spending proposed by the White House.

So far, though, Senate appropriators have allocated greater fiscal 2018 spending levels than their House counterparts for such science programs as the Energy Department’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s largest provider of funding for basic research in the physical sciences, and the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, which seeks to advance technology for water and geothermal power and boost energy efficiency in manufacturing.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Fiscal 2018 Energy & Water Development bill, which was approved on July 20, would provide $5.55 billion for fiscal 2018 for the Energy Department’s Office of Science, which funds the nation’s 10 national laboratories. The spending level is $158 million more than the flat funding House appropriators provided and represents the third year in a row that Senate appropriators have provided increased spending for the office. House appropriators provided the Office of Science $5.4 billion in fiscal 2018, the same level enacted in fiscal 2017.

Senate appropriators also allotted $1.93 billion for the Energy Department’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program and while $153 million below the current fiscal 2017 level, it is some $800 million more than House appropriators allocated and $1.3 billion more than called for in the president’s budget proposal.

In another important spending bill that funds science programs that Senate appropriators have not yet taken up, the House Appropriations Committee approved July 13 the fiscal 2018 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies measure that would give NASA a $219 million boost above 2017 enacted levels.

The House bill allocated $19.9 billion for the space agency and includes spending increases for planetary science programs and the planned missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, including the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and the Europa Lander and Mars exploration programs.

House appropriators were far less generous with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The House spending bill provides $4.97 billion, representing a $710 million cut from the current fiscal 2017 spending. NOAA’s two major satellite programs relating to weather forecasting – the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system – would be allotted $775.8 million and $518 million respectively, as requested.

While the Senate’s counterpart bill has not yet emerged from the subcommittee that funds NASA, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, raised concerns about spending cuts included in the White House budget blueprint.

Shelby signaled potential increased spending for NOAA’s satellite programs used to prepare weather prediction models and advance weather forecasting capabilities. "I am troubled by some of the proposed cuts to other core programs,” Shelby said during the June 8 subcommittee hearing on the spending measure in yet another sign that Senate appropriators are likely to secure spending for science-related programs.

AAAS’ R&D Budget and Policy Program has been providing independent analyses of federal research and development programs for more than 40 years. Updates on House and Senate budget developments relevant to science can be found here, and a new interactive tool – AAAS’ Federal R&D Appropriations Dashboard – tracks fiscal year 2018 science and technology appropriations. The Federal R&D Budget Dashboard provides long-term federal funding trends within the context of the broader budget.

"Discretionary spending is not the driver of federal budget growth or deficits," Holt added. "Protecting both defense and non-defense spending is an important principle that congressional representatives have recognized. On three separate occasions, Congress has acted to limit the worst effects of sequestration on both parts of the discretionary budget. We encourage Congress to do so again." 

[Associated image: Simon Edelman, Energy Department]