House and Senate appropriators questioned Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on cuts to NOAA and NIST in their fiscal year 2018 budget requests, including those to weather research and prediction, coastal research, education, and manufacturing programs.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently appeared before the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees in support of the administration’s $7.8 billion fiscal year 2018 budget request for the Department of Commerce. Ross defended the request as part of “rebuilding the military and critical investments in the nation’s security,” and providing the “savings and efficiencies needed to keep the nation on a responsible fiscal path.”
However, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed concern about the deep reductions proposed for the department, including to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather research and prediction programs and coastal management programs, and National Institute of Standards and Technology's manufacturing assistance programs.
Shelby champions NOAA weather prediction and research
Senate CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) said in his opening statement that while he is pleased that the budget request for NOAA “recognized the importance of [critical functions] and the administration’s prioritization of national security, I am troubled by some of the proposed cuts to other core programs,” pointing specifically to the 45 percent cut to NOAA’s Polar Follow-on weather satellite program and cuts to the agency’s weather forecasting capabilities.
Shelby also raised concerns about the proposed $3 million cut to NOAA’s National Water Model, and the impacts it would have on the National Water Center headquartered in Shelby’s home state, which he said “provides invaluable forecasts and services to the nation for water-related hazards.” Shelby questioned whether the administration’s cuts are consistent with its stated prioritization of public safety. He said,
We have on this Committee for years supported the National Weather Service’s efforts to consolidate and to create a streamlined integrated water prediction program into the National Water Center which we all benefit from. ... Yet, the budget that the president requested proposes to curtail recent advancements in weather prediction and cut weather research. It seems like a contradiction.
Secretary Ross replied that while the budget would delay upgrades to the National Water Model and the development of centralized prediction products, the National Water Center “has adequate funding to continue at a reasonable level.” He concluded that the administration appreciates “the urgency and the importance of continuing good, accurate, timely weather forecasting.”
Culberson says efficiencies and prioritization needed at NOAA
House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) said in his opening statement that one of his areas of concern when managing tax dollars in the current fiscal environment is to ensure that weather satellite programs meet their cost and schedule timelines. He elaborated that NOAA’s weather satellites are “absolutely essential to the nation’s economy, to protecting lives, to ensure that we can accurately forecast the weather,” but cautioned that the “nearly $30 billion [cost] over the next 15 years” for NOAA’s three biggest satellite programs puts “intensive pressure on the rest of the department’s budget.”
Ross replied that the accuracy and reliability of weather forecasts is “the number one purpose … so we don’t want to compromise those activities.” He added in the past that “NOAA has done a good thing buying in bulk and getting some savings in the costs of satellites,” and that the agency is taking into account satellites’ longer viability in determining how much “duplication” and “overlap” are needed for future satellites. Ross reported the launch of the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1) is still scheduled for the end of fiscal year 2017, but JPSS-2 would be postponed from early 2022 until 2023.
Culberson asked if Congress should also slow the pace of acquiring new satellites in NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series. Ross replied that he has been discussing this with NOAA and noted “that there is a need for some redundancy because there’s always the danger of catastrophic failure.”
Cartwright spotlights NOAA Regional Climate Centers
House subcommittee member Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) asked Ross about the administration’s $3 million reduction to NOAA’s Regional Climate Centers (RCCs). These centers, he said, assist in producing and delivering climate data to users at various levels.
Cartwright argued that the RCCs’ history shows that local stakeholders rely on the data they produce, and the proposed cuts would push the program’s function back to state climatologists who have small budgets that ultimately might not be able to fill the funding gap.
Ross defended the reduction, saying that while he doesn’t “know that they will be able to fill the funding gap,” none of the centers will be closed down under the budget.
Coastal grant program eliminations criticized as ‘dangerous’
Ross said that the Trump administration had identified surveys, charting, and fisheries management as core functions of NOAA, and as programs that “provided good return to the taxpayer.” He explained that the administration had in contrast classified the National Sea Grant Program and Coastal Zone Management Grant Program as “lower priority” programs, a judgement that Democrats representing coastal regions criticized.
House Appropriations Committee Ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) expressed her concerns during opening remarks, saying:
Given this administration’s aversion to science, unfortunately, especially when it comes to climate change, your proposed eliminations of the NOAA National Sea Grant Program and the NOAA Coastal Zone Management Grant Program may not be a surprise, but combined with significant decreases to NOAA climate research and NIST, these cuts are dangerous.
During the question period, Lowey again cited Sea Grant as “a valuable program” that is essential to creating jobs in coastal and Great Lakes states that voted for President Trump. Ross admitted that Sea Grant is a successful program, but is targeted for elimination because it “primarily benefits industry, state, and local stakeholders.”
House subcommittee member Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) focused his comments on the Coastal Zone Management Program, calling its elimination “very pound-foolish,” and quipped “I can’t even say it’s penny-wise.” He explained that the program contributes to public safety, and is especially important for his Washington State district that is “dealing with the impacts of more severe storms, with sea level rise, with coastal hazards, including potential tsunami.”
Ross replied that “there’s nothing inherently wrong with Coastal Zone Management” and that the administration’s request to eliminate support for the program is “not a criticism of the functions that they had performed.”
Appropriators say NIST is a 'crown jewel'
Ross explained that “reductions [at NIST] will occur in areas that have been determined to be lower priorities based on their technological readiness, level of effort required, or where NIST’s expertise is no longer required,” as part of the budget’s overall strategy to consolidate “redundant” programs.
Multiple members responded by highlighting their respect for NIST, including House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who praised the agency as “one of the crown jewels” in the federal system. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) also said that NIST is “one of the country’s real jewels” and said he believes “they do remarkable research … and are under-recognized and underappreciated.”
A number of members inquired about the administration’s proposal to eliminate NIST’s $130 million Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program, which provides technology transfer and workforce development services to small and medium-sized manufacturers through a national network of centers. Coons pressed Ross to specifically explain why the administration considers the MEP program “duplicative,” explaining that he sees no equivalent to the program.
In response, Ross said the original intention when establishing the program had been to transition it to non-federal support. He added that the department is working with first daughter Ivanka Trump’s Workforce of the Future project to collaborate with community colleges and other entities to continue the services currently provided by MEP centers.