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Some Federal Science Agencies May See Small Funding Increases in FY 2016

Despite an unsettled federal budget outlook with congressional Republicans at odds with President Obama over deficits and spending priorities, the director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program says he is "somewhat optimistic" that "some of the big science agencies will probably end up doing a little better than one might expect" in fiscal year 2016.

Matt Hourihan, speaking at a Capitol Hill luncheon briefing on 23 March, noted that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy's Office of Science fared better than expected when appropriations for the current 2015 fiscal year were completed in December, although a decade-long slide in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) continued essentially unabated.  The only NIH component to beat the rate of inflation was the National Institute on Aging, which received a 2.4 percent increase for Alzheimer's research.

Matt Hourihan | AAAS

Under current law, the discretionary budget — the portion of the federal budget that does not go to mandatory entitlement programs — remains at levels set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, with only a 0.2 percent increase from the current year's level before factoring in inflation. The president's budget proposes rolling back most spending reductions under the Budget Control Act, adding $71 billion in FY 2016 for a 7.2 percent increase over FY2015, and $329 billion increase cumulatively through FY 2021, when the so-called sequestration caps expire.

But Obama's request for substantial increases in discretionary spending faces stiff opposition on Capitol Hill, where Republicans control both the Senate and the House. Pending budget resolutions in both bodies would put limits on non-defense discretionary spending that are stricter in the out-years than those of the current sequester baseline. "These are political statements rather than anything binding," Hourihan said, but the resolutions suggest how difficult it may be for the administration to achieve some of the gains in R&D spending it has outlined.

Still, there are advocates for science in both parties and spending levels for specific agencies and projects could eventually be close to or even above the requested White House levels, Hourihan said. Some of the agencies "do seem to be getting a little bit of extra support from appropriators," Hourihan said. Whether that continues, he said, will "remain to be seen."

Hourihan spoke at a briefing organized by AAAS in conjunction with the Congressional R&D Caucus, established in the 108th Congress (2003-2005) by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) to highlight the national importance of research and provide a view of R&D funding that transcends the individual committees. (Holt, who retired from Congress, is now CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.) The current caucus co-chairs are Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.)

Some science agencies "do seem to be getting a little bit of extra support from appropriators."

Matt Hourihan, AAAS

In his discussion of the FY 2016 budget request, Hourihan said the administration's priorities are clear and largely track with previous budget requests by Obama. They reflect recurring areas of emphasis, including advanced manufacturing, clean energy technology, climate change research, and neuroscience, as well as targeted increases for STEM education and a permanent R&D tax credit.

The administration's push for improved manufacturing includes a revived proposal for a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation and a doubling of funding for advanced manufacturing efforts within the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Several agencies would see sizeable R&D increases in 2016 under the president's budget request, including, Hourihan said. They include:

  • NIH: 3.3 percent increase over FY 2015 to $31.3 billion, with the largest relative increases for Alzheimer's research and translational medicine initiatives; new proposed initiatives include $100 million to target antibiotic resistance and $200 million for precision medicine.
  • NSF: 5.4 percent increase to $6.3 billion for R&D, with the largest relative increases going to social, behavioral and economic research (7.1 percent) and engineering research (6.4 percent); new priority areas of research would include climate resilience and the ties between food, water and energy.
  • Department of Energy Office of Science: 5.2 percent increase to $4.9 billion for R&D; funding for advanced computing would increase 14.8 percent while domestic fusion research would be cut 15 percent.

Elsewhere, the Department of Agriculture would see an R&D boost of 17.9 percent to $2.88 billion, with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative increased by 38.5 percent to a total of $450 million. The Agricultural Research Service would receive $200 million for new facilities.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Research would see a boost for climate research of about 20 percent and the U.S. Geological Survey, in the U.S. Department of the Interior, would get a 14 percent boost, with a focus on efforts to improve resilience to climate change.

The administration seeks essentially flat funding for Department of Defense science and technology programs.  It seeks a 2.9 percent budget increase for NASA, with the trend since 2010 of reduced budget requests for planetary science and astrophysics continuing.

"Economic growth is a goal shared by all, and the proven centrality of science and engineering to economic growth should be a lead argument for investing in R&D," said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. "But addressing the deficit continues to be a priority in Congress and debates are primarily focused on the discretionary side of the budget where research and development resides."

The "simple truth," Carney said, is that the debate over deficit reduction may well eclipse discussion of other science-related policy issues, including some of the initiatives proposed in the president's budget request.

Analysts for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development believe that China may surpass the United States in total R&D funding from all sources by 2019.

The budget discussion comes against an international backdrop in which the United States, while still a dominant player in research and development, is being challenged by aggressive research spending increases in some of the Asian economies.

The United States remains the largest global contributor to R&D, spending more than twice as much (in dollars) as China, the next largest funder, Hourihan said. Two-thirds of U.S. R&D spending comes from industry and one-third from the federal government. Compared to other developed economies, Hourihan said, the United States remains a leader in quality scientific publications, has more prominent research universities, is somewhat more oriented toward funding for national laboratories, is far more involved with defense R&D, and features relatively more emphasis in the industrial sector on fundamental scientific research

But there has been "a very clear shift from west to east" in recent years, Hourihan said. Five East Asian states — China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea — collectively increased their share of global R&D from 24 percent in 2000 to 36.8 percent in 2012. Analysts for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) believe that China may surpass the United States in total R&D funding from all sources by 2019, Hourihan said.

In terms of national R&D intensity — R&D investment as a percentage of gross domestic product — the United States is among the leaders, (at 2.79 percent of GDP for 2012), with South Korea at the top (4.36 percent) and the United Kingdom trailing (1.72 percent).

The budget picture for R&D will be discussed in more detail at the 40th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, April 30 − May 1 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.


Earl Lane