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Some Facts About the Biden R&D Budget

A big nondefense research boost and a focus on applied science mark the latest budget request.

The White House budget request for FY 2022, released in late May, proposed some substantial increases for nondefense research agencies. With appropriations season about to kick off, here’s a high-level look at the R&D budget Congress will be considering. For more, visit our dashboards on R&D Appropriations and STEM earmarks

Overview

Analysis of combined White House and agency R&D data indicates the White House requests $172 billion for R&D in FY 2022, an 8.9% or $14 billion increase (see table below, or download figures in a spreadsheet). As can be seen, particular increases are reserved for basic and applied research funding rather than development, and for R&D facilities, a category that includes lab construction and modernization and equipment acquisition.

 

The proposed increase would be large, but not historically unique. As recently as FY 2018, federal R&D received a larger nominal year-over-year increase. The early 2000s and the late 1970s also saw multiple years of larger relative increases.

The nondefense R&D boost is more notable, however: a 17.2% increase would represent the largest for nondefense R&D since the Space Race, with the sole exception of the major but one-time boost from Recovery Act spending in FY 2009. "Nondefense" is a category that includes every major research funder except the Defense Department (DOD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

As a share of GDP, AAAS estimates the Biden request would push R&D up to 0.73%. This excludes substantial DOD funding that once was, but no longer is, counted as federal R&D, worth nearly $50 billion today.[1] Adjusting the R&D totals by adding this spending back in  suggests an R&D / GDP ratio in the request of 0.94%, on an historically comparable basis (see below graph).

 

Research funding would tick up to 0.42% of GDP, the highest level in several years excluding emergency spending.

Defense vs. Nondefense

The split between defense R&D and nondefense R&D is the product of purposeful discretionary spending choices within the Biden Administration's budget. Defense discretionary, which includes DOD and NNSA, would reach $753 billion in the Biden request, representing only a 1.6% increase. That limits the available funding for R&D programs, and the Pentagon has clearly de-prioritized science and technology programs as seen below.

Nondefense discretionary, on the other hand, would rise by 16.5%, reaching $770 billion. The extra room in the nondefense budget means several large science and technology funders are slated for sizable plus-ups.

 

The largest relative increases, shown above, include the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Department of Energy (DOE) technology programs in renewables, advanced nuclear, clean technology demonstration, carbon capture, and other areas. Environmental and climate research funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) also does well.

Energy and environment also unsurprisingly show up as clear relative priorities when federal R&D is broken down by functional category (below).

 

On the defense side, research programs are facing an extremely difficult budget, far more than the inflationary increase for defense spending might suggest. Basic science, applied science, and advanced technology programs are all facing double-digit cuts from FY 2021, including an over $300 million cut to basic research.

Part of that basic research cut are 18% reductions in support for university research initiatives and National Defense Education programs, and an even larger relative reduction for minority-serving institutions. On the other hand, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would see a slight increase of $29 million, less than one percent above FY 2021, with specific program areas in materials science, biotech, and electronics receiving plus-ups.

See the Defense tab in our appropriations dashboard for more numbers.

Priorities and Philosophy

One takeaway is that the request puts particular emphasis on applied science for technology development, use, and societal impact. The energy technology and climate programs cited above are easy examples of this. For another example, NIST's research labs would receive a sizable increase, but an even larger increase is for NIST's manufacturing innovation and supply chain programs (for a breakdown, see NIST in the "Other Agencies" tab of our appropriations dashboard).

Another way to think of this is to treat the nondefense discretionary rise as a benchmark for comparison. Increases for major discovery science funders like DOE's Office of Science and NASA's science directorate fall short of that benchmark, while NASA technology and innovation programs would see somewhat larger growth.

For the National Science Foundation (NSF), another significant funder of discovery science, the use-oriented ethos highlighted by leadership is also embedded in the budget. While NSF would see robust growth everywhere, marginally larger increases are reserved for the Administration's take on a new technology and innovation directorate, as well as basic research programs with a focus on industrial innovation in sectors like biotech, manufacturing, and microelectronics. Other research and infrastructure would grow by less than the nondefense benchmark.

The use-driven ethos also undergirds the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and in particular the Administration's proposal for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H). NIH would get a $9 billion increase, by far the largest of any agency in total dollars (see below), with $6.5 billion of that devoted to ARPA-H. Existing NIH programs would receive a $2.5 billion or 6% increase.

 

Ultimately, while the official figures show only a somewhat larger increase for applied research, in practice the "applied" increase may be even larger. 

Meanwhile, legislation in the House Appropriations Committee gets going this week.

[1] Specifically, this refers to the 6.6 and 6.7 RDT&E accounts.