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Update: In the Age of Trump, Congress Keeps Boosting Science Funding

The final FY 2020 spending package is the latest pushback against tough White House research budgets.

The two spending packages unveiled by legislators yesterday – providing final 2020 appropriations for domestic and national security programs tallying to more than $1.3 trillion – provide several research programs with plus-ups. That includes an eye-catching $2.6 billion or 6.5 percent boost all-in for the National Institutes of Health (NIH; including an extension for the Special Diabetes Program, which was set to expire), and big boosts for low-carbon energy research and innovation, and for space (i.e. lunar) exploration systems, though the latter is short of the NASA request. See the table below (click to download) and this Science news team piece for more details, or check out the AAAS budget dashboard.

 

The House will vote on the packages Tuesday [update: both packages were adopted], to be followed by the Senate, before spending runs out December 20 under current law. The agreement follows a summer budget deal that raised the spending caps by over $40 billion and avoided sharp cuts of $125 billion, along with increases emerging from the appropriations committees over summer and fall.

In many cases, House and Senate negotiators split the differences between their respective chambers. And in virtually all cases, research programs received much more than that requested in the White House budget, which sought to cut basic and applied research expenditures by over $12 billion or 14 percent (see graph).

 

The deal is over two months late, which is of course not ideal for science programs: under stopgap continuing resolutions, it's common for agencies to see spending slowdowns, delay hiring or contracting, and put new projects on hold if they haven't been given funding in the prior year. But, assuming Congress adopts and the President signs these appropriations into law this week, it will also represent the earliest finish for appropriations since 2015: in the three years since, we've had final appropriations in May, final appropriations in March, and the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
 

Research Funding Continues to Find Favor

From the beginning, the Trump Administration has taken a hard fiscal line on most research and development programs, favoring Department of Defense technology development and acquisition at the expense of basic and applied research (even Defense research activities). But these proposals have been rather emphatically rejected from the start, beginning with the FY 2017 appropriations, which Congress began under Obama but didn't finish until Trump. That spring, the Trump Administration recommended late-breaking cuts, but Congress ended up providing a mix of increases.

It was a similar story in subsequent years, including an historically generous FY 2018 omnibus, and with this week's omnibus, several research agencies have much more to spend than at the start of President Trump's term – even accounting for inflation, which is 8.3 percent over these years (note the graph below shows nominal changes, not inflation-adjusted).

 

As can be seen, some of the strongest growth in these years has been in the energy realm, including basic science (funded by the DOE Office of Science), and strong growth in R&D for efficiency, renewables, and nuclear power, and for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). This is remarkable, as these are some of the programs the Trump Administration has repeatedly sought to cut most deeply, or eliminate outright in the case of ARPA-E. Elsewhere, the NIH budget has grown by nearly $10 billion over these years; NASA has grown by $3.3 billion; and the National Science Foundation, by $784 million.

This is all a good reminder that Congress still holds the Power of the Purse.

For the Department of Energy and NIH, this week's omnibus also continues the strong recovery from sequestration-level funding in FY 2013, though the pace for other agencies has slowed (see below).

 

Agency Notes

This section will be updated.

Department of Defense (DOD). Legislators restored and increased funding for DOD’s university basic research initiatives by 11 percent or $43 million above FY 2019 levels. Legislators also settled on $1.4 billion for peer-reviewed medical research, a $200 million increase above FY 2019. Other increases above last year’s funding included $23 million more for manufacturing science and technology programs; $15 million more for the National Security Innovation Network; $12 million more for support to historically black colleges; and $8 million more for the National Defense Education Program.

Health and Human Services. Legislators settled on $25 million for gun violence research split between NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and provided $50 million for the Administration’s Childhood Cancer Data Initiative at NIH. Every NIH institute received at least a 3.3 percent increase above FY 2019, but some received much more. The National Institute on Aging would lead the way with a 14.9 percent increase with Alzheimer’s research again prioritized. NIH’s facilities spending was more than doubled to $425 million, and NIH is directed to report out on their implementation of the National Academies’ recommendations for stewardship of NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. Among many other priorities, legislators provided $500 million for opioid-related research, split between the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Legislators also extended the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Trust Fund by $3.3 billion over ten years, through 2029; it had been set to expire this year. CDC was granted a more than $600 million increase above FY 2019.

Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the table above shows declining funding for the intramural Agricultural Research Service (ARS), this is due to an unusually large boost for facilities construction in FY 2019. The primary ARS research and operations account, which contains the bulk of ARS funding, received an 8.5 percent or $111.1 million increase above FY 2019. Within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Hatch Act and Cooperative Forestry capacity grants remained flat, while research and education funding for historically black colleges and universities rose by a combined $17.7 million or 22.9 percent. The package does not include House-backed provisions to restrict USDA’s controversial move of NIFA and the Economic Research Service from Washington, DC to Kansas City, which has prompted a staff exodus and cratering morale.

Department of Energy: Office of Science. The Office of Science received $75 million for AI and machine learning research, $120 million for quantum science, and $75 million to establish up to five National Quantum Information Science Research Centers. Legislators also provided $20 million for negative emissions technology research, with at least one-quarter of that sum devoted to direct air capture. At the individual program level, math and computer science research received an 18.6 percent or $24 million boost. The international fusion energy project ITER nearly doubled to $242 million from $132 million in FY 2019 – but at the expense of other fusion research, which was cut by 4.2 percent.

The Energy Frontier Research Centers program was granted a $5 million increase – less than requested – while DOE user facilities were given varying increases between three and four percent. High-energy physics construction projects DUNE and PIP-II (Fermilab) were given $41 million and $40 million increases, respectively, the latter figure representing a major ramp-up. Earth system science was protected from large White House-backed cuts, while nuclear physics research and operations was granted a 7.3 percent increase. Support for undergrads, graduates, community college students, and STEM educators was increased by $5.5 million or 24 percent.

Department of Energy: Technology Programs. As mentioned above, legislators again saved ARPA-E as expected, and were particularly favorable to low carbon energy programs. Among renewable energy and efficiency R&D programs – which received $2.4 billion above the request level – year-over-year increases ranged from 13 percent (for wind) to 41 percent (for water power). Legislators agreed on $25 million for the Energy-Water Desalination Hub, which was awarded in September. House and Senate appropriators had previously agreed on $25 million for the Critical Minerals Institute and $28 million to support two manufacturing innovation institutes, none of which were funded in the White House request. Automotive battery and electrification R&D was increased by seven percent, and photovoltaics R&D by six percent.

Elsewhere, the final agreement provides $230 million for a Senate-backed Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. The agreement calls for public-private partnerships to build two demonstration reactors in the program’s first year, along with other activities. Carbon capture and storage R&D programs were again spared from steep cuts, and instead granted a 9.6 percent or $19 million increase, while other advanced coal R&D was reduced. The Energy Information Administration received a small $2 million increase.

 

Cover Image Credit: © diegograndi/Adobe Stock