FY20 Budget Request: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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Funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s main research office would be nearly halved under the president’s latest budget request for the agency, ending much of its support for extramural grants. NOAA does however propose to establish a new research center geared toward overhauling its approach to developing weather models.

The Trump administration’s latest budget request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for an 18 percent cut to the agency’s current $5.4 billion topline. Within that cut, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would see its budget reduced by 41 percent, while the National Weather Service would receive a comparatively modest 7 percent cut.

Details for programs within these and other offices are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

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At a recent hearing on NOAA’s budget, Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs said the agency chose to prioritize its "core mission of protecting life and property” over programs that provide grants to outside organizations.

In recent appropriations cycles, Congress has generally rejected cuts to NOAA programs. Although it did reduce NOAA’s overall budget in its last appropriations law, the decrease was driven by a planned ramp down in satellite and aircraft acquisition programs.

At the budget hearing, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee for NOAA, criticized the proposed budget as “wildly unrealistic and unworkable.” Calling cuts to the agency’s education office, climate research, and Sea Grant program “non-starters,” he pointed out the subcommittee rejected the administration’s previous proposals for these activities.

Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR)

Echoing last year’s budget request, the administration proposes to cut OAR by 41 percent to $335 million. Within the reduced topline, NOAA would prioritize weather research over climate and oceans research.

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Climate Research. The administration seeks to nearly halve the $159 million Climate Research program. Most of the decrease stems from the proposed termination of the Climate Competitive Research program, which issues grants to NOAA laboratories and external institutions.

Among the eliminated programs would be the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment (RISA) program, which develops decision-support tools for disaster preparedness and city planning. The budget justification suggests such work could instead be accommodated by the “rapidly growing” private sector climate services industry. NOAA would also end its “dedicated funding” for the National Climate Assessment, proposing to use resources from other programs to support its leadership of the interagency activity. Funding for Arctic research would also be eliminated, with NOAA suspending work on improvements to sea ice modeling and future scenario analyses for the region.

NOAA would use remaining Climate Research funds to support the base activities of its laboratories, cooperative institutes, and the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Weather and Air Chemistry Research. Amid an 18 percent cut to its $135 million Weather and Air Chemistry Research program, NOAA would prioritize the creation of an Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC). Authorized last year through an amendment to the 2017 Weather Research Forecasting and Innovation Act, the center seeks to address “long-standing challenges in migrating advancements in weather research to operations.”

The budget proposal explains EPIC will be a “virtual center” that leverages a new cloud-based high performance computing (HPC) architecture, “eliminating the computing bottleneck associated with serial testing environments on over-subscribed big iron HPC systems.” Jacobs has said EPIC will enable NOAA to create a “true community model” by making it far easier for researchers outside of agency to contribute to model development. NOAA requests $12 million to launch the center within the U.S. Weather Research Program, which would see its overall budget increase from $17 million to $28 million.

Other programs would see steep cuts. Funding for the Joint Technology Transfer Initiative would drop from $20 million to $3 million. NOAA would shutter its unmanned aircraft systems program office and close the Air Resources Laboratory, which conducts atmospheric chemistry research. It would also terminate the Vortex-Southeast project, which seeks to improve tornado forecasts across the southeastern United States. Each of these programs is currently funded at about $5 million.

Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Research. The administration proposes to cut the Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Research program by 55 percent to $99 million. Much of the drop is due to the administration’s renewed call to end the $68 million National Sea Grant College Program, which supports research related to resiliency in coastal communities at more than 300 institutions. The remainder of the cuts are distributed across ocean exploration and observation programs, reducing the number of observational platforms NOAA can maintain.

Research Supercomputing. Funding for acquisition of supercomputing systems would decrease from $41 million to $26 million, with the administration again proposing to terminate a $15 million “congressionally directed” high performance computing project at Mississippi State University.

National Weather Service (NWS)

Funding for NWS would drop 7 percent to $1.1 billion under the proposal, with cuts spread across programs that support data collection, computing, and forecasting

Observations. The budget for observational data collection would drop 7 percent to $228 million. NOAA proposes to cut $12.5 million from the National Mesonet Program, which gathers mesoscale meteorological observations across all 50 states, prioritizing data collection in states that are most susceptible to severe weather. Amid cuts to other programs that collect observations from buoys and aircraft, NOAA proposes a new $2 million program to buy data from ships, noting that the Weather Research Forecasting and Innovation Act directed the agency to leverage new sources of data.

Forecasting. Citing findings from a recent workforce analysis, NOAA proposes to cut its forecasting staff by 110 people to address “inherent inefficiencies associated with the rigid field office structure.” Separately, NOAA also proposes to subsume its Climate Prediction Center into its Weather Prediction Center to “eliminate overlap between the ever-changing transition at the weather and climate scale domains to develop a more continuous suite of products.”

High performance computing. NOAA proposes to halt funding for acquisition of HPC resources dedicated to improving hydrologic prediction capabilities, such as stream level forecasting. The agency nonetheless reports this would perpetuate “the current situation where over 20 million Americans living in major cities on the coast do not have access to hydrological forecasts.” NOAA would also defund the Jet supercomputer in Colorado, which it states could delay improvements to storm forecasts and warnings. NOAA does however note that the new EPIC program could mitigate this decrease in HPC resources.

National Water Model. In recent budget cycles, Congress has provided NWS with additional funding to advance the National Water Model, which forecasts river and stream levels across the U.S.  NOAA states it is unable to support the elevated funding level under the latest budget and proposes to terminate a recent multi-year project awarded to the University of Alabama to improve measurements of snow depth and soil moisture. The university hosts the National Water Center, which is leading the development of the model. Responding to questions about the center by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), the ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee for NOAA, Jacobs said the agency is committed to increasing staff at the center as directed by Congress and to expand the geographic coverage of the model.

National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

Image off the coast of California taken by the newly operational GOES-17 satellite, also known as GOES-West.  (Image credit - NOAA)

Image off the coast of California taken by the newly operational GOES-17 satellite, also known as GOES-West.

(Image credit - NOAA)

The NESDIS budget would fall 13 percent to $1.5 billion under the request, largely due to planned decreases in large satellite acquisition programs. Meanwhile, the agency is ramping up planning for its next-generation constellation in the wake of the NOAA Satellite Observing System Architecture (NSOSA) study, which sketched out opportunities for new approaches that are less reliant on a small number of large, government-owned satellites. 

Budget restructure. As part of its preparation for a more disaggregated satellite architecture, NOAA proposes to restructure the NESDIS budget. It argues the current system, which ties resources to particular satellite systems, “lacks the flexibility to effectively exploit partnerships and technology innovation, or to manage risks across the observing system.”

Future satellite architecture. NOAA requests $10 million to support studies and potential flight demonstrations that explore ways the agency can meet its future observation needs in geostationary orbits and other extended orbits. These studies would identify opportunities for commercial platforms to host NOAA missions and assess whether future imaging instrumentation could be made more amenable to commercial hosting. In justifying the new program, NOAA points to the NSOSA study’s conclusion that a hybrid constellation of government satellites and hosted payloads could be cheaper and less risky than the current architecture.

Joint Venture Partnership. NOAA also requests $2 million to create a Joint Venture Partnership program that would support collaborative projects with NASA and commercial entities to develop new observational capabilities. The effort responds to a recommendation of the latest National Academies decadal survey on space-based Earth science, and it will initially focus on developing capabilities for a future low Earth orbit architecture for atmospheric soundings.

Commercial Weather Data Pilot. Since 2016, NOAA has been assessing the feasibility of ingesting commercial data into its weather forecasts, with an initial focus on radio occultation data. NOAA requests $8 million to continue the pilot program, of which $5 million would go toward purchasing commercial radio occultation data. The agency anticipates it will expand such data purchases in the coming years, projecting that it will request $15 million next fiscal year and $25 million each following year through fiscal year 2024.

Geostationary satellites. NOAA’s program to replace its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) constellation continues a planned ramp down following the launch of GOES-17 last year, decreasing 26 percent to $304 million. The request notes that the next satellite in the series, GOES-T, will be delayed as one of the spacecraft’s instruments undergoes a redesign after the partial failure of a similar instrument aboard GOES-17.

Polar satellites. NOAA again proposes to merge two programs that fund the acquisition of polar weather satellites, which would permit them to share reserves. The joint program would receive $123 million less than the $878 million Congress provided in total last year, reflecting a planned ramp down of work.

Space weather monitoring. Although Congress has begun to ramp up funding for the Space Weather Follow On program, providing $27 million last year, NOAA proposes slightly reduced funding for this year. The program supports the development of replacement capabilities for monitoring coronal mass ejections from the Sun. NOAA currently relies on a NASA research satellite that is well past its design life to provide such information.

Regional climate centers. To accommodate a 7 percent cut to the $61 million National Centers for Environmental Information program, NOAA proposes to eliminate support for the Regional Climate Centers program, which provide tailored information on events such as droughts and floods.

Office of Education

Echoing prior requests, the administration proposes to eliminate all major programs in NOAA’s Office of Education, including programs that support STEM education at minority serving institutions, environmental literacy, and undergraduate scholarships. The request retains $1 million of the office’s current $29 million budget for it to “support a streamlined, centralized office” that would focus on “coordinating and improving the performance of NOAA’s numerous activities in STEM education.”

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