First Look: President Obama’s Final Budget Request Makes Hard Choices for Science

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The President’s fiscal year 2017 budget request is a mixed bag for science, with proposed increases for some science agencies hinging on new mandatory spending that Congress is unlikely to embrace. 

There’s a lot of talk about science policy over the course of the year, but of course what counts at least as much is the dollars,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, during Tuesday’s rollout of President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 research and development (R&D) budget. The annual request is watched closely since it reflects the President’s priorities across the federal government, including at the science agencies.

The scientific community is receiving the final budget proposal of Obama’s presidency with a mix of concern and muted appreciation. While the budget calls for increases in funding for most of the major science agencies and offices, chunks of the increases are by way of new mandatory spending that Congress would need to authorize through legislation separate from annual appropriations. The choice to pursue new mandatory spending allows the Administration to propose spending above statutory caps while staying within budget law, but key lawmakers such as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) are already saying Congress has “little appetite” for this mandatory spending approach.

The two tables below highlight the fiscal year 2017 funding requests for key science agencies, offices, and accounts. The first table excludes the proposals for new mandatory spending while the second table includes them:

   Table 1: President's FY17 request not including new mandatory spending

Agency or Sub-unit FY15
DOE Office of Science 5,133 5,347 5,572 4.2%
NSF 7,398 7,464 7,564 1.3%
NASA Science 5,243 5,589 5,303 -5.1%
NIST 864 964 1,015 5.2%
DOD S&T 12,024 13,037 12,501 -4.1%
NOAA 5,448 5,772 5,849 1.3%
NIH 30,311 32,311 31,311 -3.1%

* all figures are in millions of nominal U.S. dollars

Table 2: President's FY17 request including new mandatory spending

Agency or Sub-unit FY15
DOE Office of Science 5,133 5,347 5,672 6.1%
NSF 7,398 7,464 7,964 6.7%
NASA Science 5,243 5,589 5,601 0.2%
NIST 864 964 3,005 211.7%
DOD S&T 12,024 13,037 12,501 -4.1%
NOAA 5,448 5,772 5,949 3.1%
NIH 30,311 32,311 33,136 2.6%

* all figures are in millions of nominal U.S. dollars

Science agencies feel the pinch of spending caps

In fiscal year 2016, most of the major science agencies and offices are receiving substantial funding increases, but for fiscal year 2017 a cap on discretionary spending will make it harder for Congress to achieve the same magnitude of growth for science. Under the budget agreement negotiated and signed into law last fall, discretionary spending caps increased 5.5 percent between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, providing a one-year spending boon. The same agreement sets the discretionary spending cap in fiscal year 2017 nearly flat relative to fiscal year 2016, meaning lawmakers have about the same amount to spend on 2017 as they did on 2016.

In formulating a budget request with flat funding, the Administration faced tough tradeoffs on what programs to fund. These choices are reflected in the agency budget requests. If the new mandatory spending proposals are excluded, for instance, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Department of Defense Science and Technology (DOD S&T), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are particularly hard hit in the budget, with cuts of 5.1 percent, 4.1 percent, and 3.1 percent, respectively. On the other hand, the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE Science) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would receive increases of 4.2 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.

At the Tuesday rollout, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren reassured the scientific community that despite these tradeoffs, science and technology emerged as one of the President’s priorities for the year’s request. He said “we are very fortunate to have a president who really gets it when it comes to how and why science, technology, and innovation matter for the nation’s agenda,” adding that the President has highlighted science and technology in both of his inaugural addresses and every State of the Union address.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, released a statement that agreed Obama has been a strong supporter of science but expressed dismay over cuts to research and warned of a national “innovation deficit”:

[T]his budget does not live up to the President’s long-time commitment to funding research. … The budget sets aspirational goals for research funding, which we commend, but, other than energy research, the proposed investments rely on mandatory funding streams that Congress will not seriously consider.

New mandatory research spending proposed but congressional approval unlikely

Should some of the Administration’s ideas for new mandatory spending become law, it would not be the first time R&D has been funded through mandatory spending. The Public Health Service Act enacted in 1944, for example, authorizes mandatory spending for a Type 1 diabetes research program that still exists at NIH.

Mandatory spending would, however, be a first for science agencies like NASA, NIST, and NSF which have historically relied exclusively on discretionary dollars. Under the President’s proposal NIST, which is currently funded at just under $1 billion annually, would receive an additional $1.9 billion in mandatory spending, to establish a national network of 45 hubs for manufacturing technology, innovation, and commercialization by fiscal year 2025.

Key leaders on Capitol Hill such as Cochran have not been so receptive. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a House appropriations subcommittee chair, weighed in:

While the proposals for curing cancer and combating opioid abuse are worthy goals, the president’s proposed methods are simply unacceptable budget gimmicks that irresponsibly rely on mandatory spending.

Administration highlights science priorities and initiatives

Below is a list of some of the Administration’s science priorities and initiatives in the fiscal year 2017 budget, a number of which involve the physical sciences:

  • A doubling of U.S. clean energy R&D funding over the next five years as part of Mission Innovation, a 20-nation commitment to accelerate public and private clean energy R&D worldwide (DOE);
  • Basic research investments that support ground-breaking discoveries and world-leading facilities across all fields of science and engineering (DOE Office of Science, NSF & NIST);
  • R&D “likely to create the foundations for the industries and jobs of the future,” in areas including robotics, cyber-physical systems, big data, the Materials Genome Initiative, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and engineering biology;
  • The National Strategic Computing Initiative, which the President established by Executive Order last summer, to develop an exascale computing system and invest in other high-performance computing (DOE, DOD, NSF & NIST);
  • A National Cancer Moonshot to cure cancer, which President Obama announced during last month’s State of the Union address (NIH);
  • The Precision Medicine Initiative aimed at a future when health care providers will be able to tailor medical care to the individual patient (NIH & FDA);
  • The BRAIN Initiative to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain (NIH, NSF, DARPA & FDA);
  • Continued funding to advance “actionable” climate science and improve our understanding of climate change (U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates efforts across 13 departments & agencies);
  • A “STEM for all” focus within the President’s Educate to Innovative initiative to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in grades K-12 (Department of Education & NSF); and
  • The Computer Science for All initiative to give every student from PreK-12 the opportunity to learn hands-on computer science (Department of Education & NSF).

Congress has the next move, and the power of the purse

The budget submission marks the beginning of the congressional budget process. Starting this week and proceeding through the next few months, the House and Senate budget and appropriations committees will take a close look at the President’s proposals, consult constituents and thought leaders, and begin to develop the legislation that will eventually fund the federal government for fiscal year 2017.

Over the next two weeks, FYI will publish a series of bulletins on the President’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, examining science agency budgets in greater detail.


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