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The Winding Path Ahead for Science Funding

The House finished most of its FY 2021 appropriations work, but there’s still a long way to go for annual and emergency spending. Here’s a roundup.

After weeks of delay and disruption that saw multiple rounds of COVID-19 relief, in July the U.S. House finally adopted a pair of spending packages containing ten (out of twelve) annual spending bills for the 2021 fiscal year (FY), thus completing most of their regular appropriations work. But even with that rapid progress in the lower chamber and an October 1 deadline looming, there’s still a long way to go before this year’s funding cycle wraps up – for both annual spending measures and for emergency COVID-19 relief.

As Congress heads into the September home stretch, here’s a roundup of what’s happened to date and some of the potential next steps.

More Virus Relief?

Ordinarily, Congress spends the spring and summer developing a budget resolution and writing and passing annual appropriations acts. But COVID-19 crashed those plans, and instead the bulk of this year has been spent on emergency spending to cope with the pandemic: four bills in all so far, with net expenditures north of $2.4 trillion per CBO estimates.

An important difference between annual appropriations and emergency or supplemental appropriations is that the former are subject to spending caps, while the latter are not. The spending caps are scheduled to rise by less than one percent in FY 2021, which vastly limits the ability of appropriators to implement many funding changes or adjustments in baseline spending. This leaves emergency appropriations open as the only avenue for significant spending on pandemic research, response, or relief (or other priorities).

To date, this freedom to spend on emergencies has enabled legislators to provide $6.5 billion to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), $7.5 billion to CDC, $3.6 billion to NIH, and tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to other agencies to research COVID-19, develop tests and vaccines, cope with the costs of mission delays and adjustments, or ensure data continuity.

But many research institutions say more is needed. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports that impacts on the federal enterprise are far-reaching, resulting in lab and user facility closures, canceled conferences, equipment delays, and increased costs for ongoing R&D. The impacts for some individual researchers have also been substantial, especially for female scientists and scientists with young dependents.

For universities, the Council on Government Relations, a university association, recently unveiled a model suggesting substantial financial impacts across the academic research enterprise. Other reports have highlighted the plight of postdocs during the crisis.

Thus, a coalition of U.S. universities has called for another $26 billion in emergency research relief across even smaller federal funders. In response, some legislators have introduced the bicameral, bipartisan RISE Act, which authorizes (but does not appropriate) that amount.

Congress seems to have interest in doing something on emergency research funding, but currently has dueling proposals to sort out. The House has adopted the HEROES Act, while Senate Republicans have introduced a package dubbed the HEALS Act (which also includes legislation on semiconductor competitiveness, critical minerals, and other innovation topics). Each provides billions more for NIH, CDC, and BARDA, with the Senate bill the more generous: for instance, NIH would receive $15.5 billion under the Republican proposal and $4.7 billion under the House-adopted bill.

On the other hand, the House-backed HEROES Act would provide some support for certain other research agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey. These sums amount to at least tens of millions for each; this summary has details.

In addition to these standalone bills, House legislators have also tacked emergency spending onto regular appropriations, most of which have been approved by the full House. These include $6.3 billion for Department of Energy Office of Science research infrastructure, $8.3 billion for low-carbon technology deployment and weatherization, $5 billion for NIH, and billions more for nuclear energy, fossil energy, electricity infrastructure, and ARPA-E.

Clearly, there’s appetite for getting NIH and a few others extra funding for virus research and vaccine development in the next round of emergency funding. The motivation for funding other agencies seems much less certain. But following the recent collapse of negotiations between lawmakers and the White House, the new conflict over Postal Service funding, and the Republican offering of a “skinny” near-term relief bill, the when’s and what’s of the next round of relief remain to be determined. Negotiations may resume as election-year pressure builds.

Regular Appropriations: Limited Changes

The House attacked their annual appropriations with gusto in July, adopting ten out of twelve bills by July 31. The Senate hasn’t even started theirs yet. That may come in September, in parallel with whatever COVID-19 emergency negotiations are happening, though even that’s in question.

While COVID-19 has brought big spending, the changes in regular appropriations have been small, owing to the tight spending caps mentioned above. See the table below for some basic numbers (download table), or the AAAS FY 2021 appropriations dashboard for more details.

Table showing moderate increases by U.S. House for science programs.


As could be predicted, the spending caps clearly constrain what the House is able to do. Even Democratic priorities like renewable energy and climate research would see relatively modest changes. Once again, the President’s science budget has had little bearing on the proceedings, though in some cases (but not all) appropriators have provided the requested funding for AI, machine learning, and quantum information science, all White House priorities.

If the Senate does move forward with appropriations in September (no guarantee), there’s no reason to expect radically different outcomes than in the House. And so, again, emergency spending is left as the primary avenue for significant funding or relief.

Stopgap on the Way, Again

With annual appropriations expiring October 1, legislators have already acknowledged they’ll need a stopgap continuing resolution (CR) to avoid a shutdown – there’s simply no way for the Senate to get its work finished, and for the House and Senate to negotiate and resolve any remaining differences. A CR would maintain funding at the current year’s levels for some defined period, giving Congress more time to finish annual appropriations.

The last time Congress got annual appropriations finished on time was 1996 – which means they’ve needed at least one CR for 24 straight years. But this year is a special case.

How long could a potential CR be? With the November presidential election approaching, it would not be a surprise to see a CR that runs into the back half of November, given many legislators will be eager to get on the campaign trail.

After that, Congress may wrap up the annual spending debate before the end of the calendar year. Depending on how the election shakes out, Democrats could also attempt to force Congress to punt annual appropriations into the new year, if it means a friendlier White House and Congress to handle them. But there may not be enormous upside to such a move under the current spending caps, which require additional legislation to overturn.

Long-term CRs of that nature are not ideal for the research enterprise, even if they result in a little extra money on the back end. CRs typically mean fiscal uncertainty for agencies, researchers, and contractors, can mean further delays or disruptions on top of those already experienced this year, and new projects may not be able to commence under a CR if they weren’t funded in the previous year. And when CRs do end, it can mean a mad scramble to get money out the door, especially if Congress has provided a late increase.

COVID-19 negotiations may run parallel to these considerations, and Congress does have the option to attach an emergency relief package to a CR if it has to.

Unfortunately, the path ahead isn’t just winding – it’s quite murky.