Skip to main content

In Senate, Research Spending Lined Up for New High

Under the current slate of legislation, moderate increases would allow agency research dollars to continue their recent growth.


With completion of the Defense and Labor, HHS, and Education spending bills by the Senate Appropriations Committee late last month – marking the committee’s fastest work in decades – research funding in the 2019 fiscal year could top $85 billion, according to current AAAS estimates. This would mark the highest point ever for such spending.

The previous high for research budget authority came in FY 2009 at $82.6 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to historical agency data. That year, in the midst of the financial crisis, Congress adopted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package that added an extra $15.6 billion to research appropriations.

The year-over-year increase for basic and applied research would amount to an estimated 2.4 percent, with larger increases for basic. Discretionary spending overall is slated to rise by three percent, under the terms of the budget deal earlier this year.

Research as a share of GDP in FY 2019 would slip slightly to 0.41 percent under the Senate proposals, on par with pre-sequestration estimates. The 40-year average for basic and applied research as a share of GDP is 0.39 percent (see graph above right).

Basic Research Favored

Estimates suggest Senate appropriators would deliver a nearly five percent increase for basic research (see graph below), as the largest federal funders of basic science – including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, NASA’s Science directorate, and the Department of Defense (DOD) – would all receive increases of at least 2.9 percent, in some cases much more.


DOD basic research programs would fare particularly well with a 19.4 percent or $455 million increase to $2.8 billion total, $529 million above the Pentagon’s budget request. The bulk of the increase would be devoted to the Defense Research Sciences program elements, which form the core of the military’s intramural and extramural research, and which would receive a 21.1 percent increase. University initiatives would receive a 4.1 percent boost.

On the other hand, Senate appropriators have provided more limited changes for some of the larger applied research funders like the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy’s technology programs. Senate appropriators have also cut DOD’s large applied research programs by over $100 million, while pumping up DOD's latter-stage development, testing, and evaluation accounts.

Still, in virtually all cases Senate (as well as House) appropriators have been far more generous than the White House, which has seen its proposed science budget for FY 2019 largely shut out. Congress also ignored the Trump Administration’s recommendations in FY 2017 and, just a few months ago, adopted an historically generous omnibus for science in FY 2018, representing a complete departure from the Administration’s historically difficult science and technology budget.

As can be seen in the above graph, House appropriators have been somewhat less generous than the Senate. The House figures will tick up slightly once House appropriators release their final outstanding bill next week, funding the Department of Homeland Security.

Still Work To Do

While the appropriations committees have made clear progress, the process has a ways to go yet. To date, no spending legislation has been signed into law, and only a handful have been adopted on the floor in either chamber (see progress). Of those, legislators had planned to meet this week to negotiate the final versions of a subset of bills covering energy, veterans, and the legislative branch, but those negotiations were abruptly postponed.

While those initial bills may prove easier to resolve, legislators could face bigger challenges finalizing the bills funding major healthcare programs and environmental programs, which tend to be more divisive and subject to controversial policy riders.

Congressional leaders remain committed to finishing appropriations on time by October 1 for the first time since 1996. But with the midterm elections on the horizon and a Supreme Court fight looming in the Senate, legislators will likely have to adopt a stopgap continuing resolution for at least some agencies to avoid a partial government shutdown. And, of course, the biggest X-factor may be President Trump and his veto pen, should the Administration decide to take a more aggressive stance on their spending priorities.