House Budget Resolution Proposes Restructured Federal Science Apparatus, Foreshadows Likely CR

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Publication date: 
29 March 2016

A report accompanying the pending House budget resolution devotes more space than usual to opining on the federal role in supporting research and development and proposes restructuring the federal research apparatus, namely through eliminating the Department of Commerce and reducing support of applied research.

The House Budget Committee recently approved the fiscal year 2017 congressional budget resolution, the document which (if agreed to by the full House and Senate) sets overall spending levels for the year and presents a blueprint for federal spending into the next decade. The resolution abides by the non-defense discretionary spending cap of $518.5 billion for FY17 agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, a $15 billion dollar increase over the FY17 cap set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.  It also purports to reduce federal spending by $6.5 trillion over the next ten years, although these future year cuts serve more as markers since Congress appropriates money on an annual basis.

The committee cleared the resolution by a vote of 20 to 16, with two Republican and all Democratic committee members voting no. Most Democrats oppose the resolution because they view the cuts as excessive or achieved at the expense of important programs. Some Republicans, concerned that cuts are not deep enough, oppose the resolution as well. The full House will likely vote on the resolution after it returns from recess on April 12.

Although largely a symbolic document, the accompanying committee report offers insight into House Republican views on the role of the federal government in supporting research and development (R&D).

“The proper role of the federal government is to support basic research”

The report stakes out familiar stances on federal R&D spending, namely by underscoring the federal role in supporting basic research and advocating for reductions to federal support of applied R&D. For example, the committee has proposed “paring back applied and commercial R&D” in every budget resolution committee report released since Republicans took control of the House following the 2010 election.

However, this year the committee devotes an above average amount of text in the report to laying out priorities for R&D spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA. Key excerpts of the report are included at the end of this article.

In the report, the committee implies that certain NSF directorates should be prioritized, namely the Mathematical & Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Computer & Information Science & Engineering, and Education & Human Resources directorates. The committee also writes that NSF should explain how the grants it awards support the national interest as defined by the House-passed “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act.”

On the subject of DOE, the committee criticizes the Office of Science for funding projects that are too risky, but also suggests that the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is not funding projects that are risky enough. The committee also asserts that there should be more oversight of DOE grants, citing “clear overlap and duplication” in nuclear physics research supported by DOE.

On NASA, the committee decries increases in earth science research “even though it is not NASA’s mission priority” and calls for funding to be shifted toward “missions unique to NASA.”

Finally, perhaps the most dramatic (although not new) proposal which would affect the federal science apparatus is the committee’s proposal to eliminate the Department of Commerce and transfer some of its functions to other agencies. In particular, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology would be merged into the Department of the Interior and NSF, respectively.

Congress has recommended eliminating the Commerce Department within budget resolutions before. For example, both the House resolution and the Senate resolution proposed doing so in 1995. The legislative branch is not alone in its desire to restructure the department. In 2012, President Obama laid out a plan under which six smaller agencies would be merged into the department and NOAA would be transferred to the Department of Interior.

Battle over budget resolution foreshadows continuing resolution

A combination of the bitter budget environment and the upcoming presidential election make it likely that Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution (CR) this fall. A CR is a stop-gap measure by which the government is funded for a portion of the new fiscal year at the same levels as were agreed to in the previous fiscal year.

The last time Congress did not have to pass a CR during a presidential election year was 1996. Asked about the likelihood of needing a CR this year, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), an appropriations subcommittee chair, replied “I think that’s more likely than not.”

In a recent hearing, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz emphasized the negative impact a CR would have on projects which are ramping up, such as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF):

We’re on the ramp up for LBNF, which does remind one that we hope we don’t end up in CR land again because things like these new projects -- things that go up and go down don’t go up or down in the CR world, so let’s hope we can get to a budget that has priorities in it.

Key excerpts of the budget resolution committee report

Below are passages of the committee report that contain discussion of the federal role in funding R&D and present “illustrative discretionary spending policy options” for realigning the government’s R&D portfolio:

The resolution emphasizes basic research, providing stable funding for NSF to conduct priority biological, computing, and information sciences; basic research in math and the physical sciences; and science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] education. The budget provides continued support for NASA and recognizes the vital strategic importance of the United States remaining the preeminent space-faring Nation. This budget aligns funding in accordance with NASA’s core principles: to support robust space capability, to allow for exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and to support the Nation’s scientific and educational base.

Illustrative Discretionary Spending Policy Options

Restore Core Government Responsibilities. In fiscal year 2016, $66.4 billion was dedicated to research across the Federal Government, more than half to applied research. The resolution’s levels support preserving the Federal scientific community’s original role as a venue for groundbreaking discoveries and a driver of innovation and economic growth. It responsibly pares back applied and commercial research and development and areas of wasteful spending that do not provide a high return on taxpayer resources. The proper role of the Federal Government is to support basic research, and funding should be distributed accordingly. For example, spending for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science includes several high-risk projects, which in a time of needed fiscal constraint, should be embarked on by the private sector instead.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, created specifically for high-risk/high-reward energy projects, received almost $300 million in 2015. The Government Accountability Office [GAO] and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology have identified many of these grants as neither high-risk/high-reward nor something private industry could not take on itself. Of the smaller companies that received these grants, GAO found that 18 had received grants from private industry for a similar technology.

Funding for nuclear physics received almost $600 million in 2015 for research and development, and grants were issued to research groups at 90 public and private universities, along with nine federally funded laboratories. Much of the research conducted at these universities and laboratories has clear overlap and duplication. There must be greater oversight of the grants that the Department of Energy awards.

Similarly, the NSF needs to be more transparent and accountable to the taxpayer. Every grant issued should be accompanied by an explanation of the project’s scientific merits and how it serves the national interest as prescribed in the House-passed Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (H.R. 3293). NSF-funded studies—such as a $1.3 million project to measure the effectiveness of koozies in varying temperatures; an $853,000 project investing in a winemaking curriculum aimed at teenagers; and a $706,000 project to fund a shrimp fight club at Duke University measuring the punching power of mantis shrimp—do not serve a vital national interest. Funding for these programs and similarly wasteful or low-return studies should be redirected to scientific research that better serves the national interest.

Lastly, in NASA, spending on earth science, not space, has increased by more than 60 percent in recent years, even though it is not NASA’s mission priority. This spending should be cut back to previous funding levels and redistributed to those missions unique to NASA.

Reduce Funding for Commercial Research and Development. The resolution supports maintaining current funding levels for basic R&D activities within the DOE, while significantly reducing funding for applied R&D. Focusing on basic R&D will allow DOE to zero in on cutting-edge discoveries that may lead to major improvements in society, such as the Internet, while leaving research on the application and commercialization of new technologies to the private sector.

Eliminate the Department of Commerce and Consolidate Necessary Functions Into Other Departments. Since its establishment in 1903, the Commerce Department has expanded in size and scope to include many elements whose priorities would be better suited in other agencies. As a result, the Department of Commerce and its various agencies and programs are rife with waste, abuse, and duplication. This budget proposes the following dissolution, delegation of authority, and consolidation measures:

  • Consolidate National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration functions into the Department of the Interior.
  • Establish the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an independent agency.
  • Consolidate the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Technical Information Services within the National Science Foundation
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