Science Committee Parcels Out $45 Billion for Democrats’ Spending Drive

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Publication date: 
September 10, 2021
Number: 
82

Allocating its share of a special $3.5 trillion spending package Democrats are working to move through Congress, the House Science Committee has prioritized infrastructure renovation and research facility projects across several agencies, as well as climate science and clean energy R&D.

Yesterday, the House Science Committee advanced its legislative proposal for dividing up the $45.5 billion it was allocated from the $3.5 trillion spending package that Democrats are currently developing. If enacted, it would provide several science agencies with a flood of funding that in most cases would be spent over five years to restore and upgrade facilities and expand certain research programs.

Republicans unanimously oppose the overall package and so Democrats are aiming to pass it using Congress’ budget reconciliation process, which circumvents the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. However, there are also strong disagreements among Democrats over the scale and content of the package, and efforts to resolve such disputes could eventually result in R&D-related spending proposals being dropped or significantly altered. 

Committee aims to fund bipartisan priorities

Introducing the Science Committee’s proposal, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) stated that the budget reconciliation process is “inherently partisan and complicated.” Noting the committee’s preference for bipartisan work, she explained, “We have worked hard to ensure that much of what is funded in this [legislation] aligns closely with the priorities this committee has focused on in a bipartisan manner.”

About $10 billion of the committee’s total allocation is focused on the renovation and recapitalization of science facilities. In addition, more than $8 billion would pay for experiments and upgraded research tools supported by the Department of Energy, while about $2 billion would go toward high-performance computing and data processing across agencies. 

Roughly $5 billion is directed toward climate research and clean-energy efforts, of which more than half would go to fusion energy, an area that the committee has sought to drive forward. The legislation would also provide billions of dollars to expand research programs at the National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce.

Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) reiterated his party’s opposition to the contemplated scale of spending in the overall package and also raised several objections to how the committee is allocating its portion. For instance, he suggested it is too focused on renewable energy, neglects space exploration and pandemic relief for researchers, and sets up a “funding cliff” that would eventually leave scientists without continuing support.

“These aren’t thoughtful investments designed to significantly improve American research and development. We’re throwing money at agencies with almost no direction on how it is to be spent,” he said.

Department of Energy

The committee’s legislation allocates about $15.6 billion to DOE, of which about $12.8 billion is for the Office of Science. The office was the focal point for a major bipartisan policy bill the committee developed earlier this year that recommends increasing its topline budget from $7 billion to $11 billion over five years.

The reconciliation package proposal would provide advance funding for various construction projects that are underway or in planning stages, encompassing small projects as well as flagship efforts such as the Electron-Ion Collider and the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment

Of the roughly $2.6 billion included for fusion energy activities, about half is for U.S. contributions to the international ITER facility under construction in France. The rest would mostly fund initiatives that were authorized in the Energy Act of 2020 and have not been accommodated in proposals for annual spending by the Biden administration or congressional appropriators. They include new efforts in materials R&D, reactor design, inertial fusion, “alternative and enabling” concepts for fusion, and a milestone-based program to reimburse companies developing fusion technologies.

Funding for other research programs is limited to $340 million for facilitating researchers’ access to U.S.-based quantum computers, $180 million for low-dose radiation research, and $116 million for DOE’s Computational Science Graduate Fellowship Program.

DOE’s applied energy programs would receive more than $25 billion for technology development and demonstration projects under the bipartisan infrastructure spending package that the Senate passed last month. Much of that funding is for carbon management, hydrogen fuel, and nuclear energy projects. 

Accordingly, the Science Committee allocates less than $2.5 billion for applied energy R&D, of which about $1 billion is for renewable energy demonstration projects. Most of the rest is for projects at Idaho National Lab and the National Renewable Energy Lab and $95 million is for early work on the proposed Versatile Test Reactor, which appropriators have zeroed out in their fiscal year 2022 spending proposals. Democrats rejected an amendment offered by Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Randy Weber (R-TX), a leading proponent of VTR, to increase the funding for it to $1.26 billion.

National Science Foundation

The legislation would provide NSF with $11 billion over ten years, of which $7.6 billion is for research and education programs and $3.4 billion is for research infrastructure. 

Eligible uses of the research money include extending grant awards to address pandemic-related disruptions to research projects as well as funding new projects across all disciplines. Of the research funds, $700 million is set aside for work at Minority Serving Institutions and $400 million is for climate change research, “including research related to wildfires.”

The proposal also states the funds can support “use-inspired and translational research and development awards, entrepreneurial education, and technology transfer activities,” an allusion to the types of activities the committee envisions funding through the new directorate proposed in its bipartisan NSF for the Future Act

Democrats rejected an amendment from Lucas that would have prohibited funds from going to the directorate. Lucas argued the legislation is “putting the cart before the horse” since the House and Senate have not resolved significant differences over the directorate’s scope. 

Eligible uses of the infrastructure funds include equipment, mid-scale infrastructure, Antarctic infrastructure modernization, and major construction projects. The bill sets aside $1 billion for projects at academic institutions, of which $300 million is specifically for Minority Serving Institutions. 

The committee adopted an amendment from Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK) that requires at least 20% of the infrastructure funds go to projects in jurisdictions supported by NSF’s EPSCoR program, which sets aside funds for states and territories that have historically received a lesser share of agency funding. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) strongly opposed the amendment, arguing EPSCoR unfairly excludes institutions that are not in its jurisdictions but would otherwise benefit from access to research capacity-building funding.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) offered a symbolic amendment that would have allocated $454 million for construction in a “Next Generation Arecibo Telescope” in Puerto Rico, replacing the radio telescope that collapsed last year. Withdrawing the amendment, he acknowledged the committee does not yet have enough information on “planning and requirements” to support such a project. Separately, Waltz successfully attached an amendment allocating $25 million for NSF’s recently created research security office.

NASA

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NASA Goddard

An aerial view of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. A recent NASA report states that 68% of the facilities at Goddard are more than 50 years old. (Image credit – Bill Hrybyk / NASA)

NASA would receive $4.4 billion over five years, of which $4 billion is for “repair, recapitalization, and modernization of physical infrastructure and facilities.” NASA informed the committee in July that it currently has more than $2.6 billion in deferred maintenance.

The total amount is well short of the $11.5 billion that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is seeking, split almost evenly between infrastructure projects and a second human lunar lander for the Artemis program. Earlier this year, the agency awarded a single lander contract to the company SpaceX in view of Congress’ limited appropriation for the program. However, the Science Committee has been insistent in prodding NASA to develop more detailed plans for Artemis.

The remainder of the NASA funding in the committee’s legislation is mainly for climate-related activities, with $225 million for R&D on “sustainable aviation” technologies; $85 million for R&D on “subseasonal to seasonal models and observations, climate resilience and sustainability, and airborne instruments, campaigns, and surface networks”; and $28 million for climate research data management and processing. It also includes $50 million to support wildfire fighting operations.

Democrats rejected an amendment from Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX) that would have given NASA flexibility to use the infrastructure funds for its human exploration programs.

Department of Commerce

The legislation includes $13.5 billion for the Department of Commerce, of which $5 billion is for regional innovation initiatives and the remainder is split between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

This summer, the committee advanced bipartisan legislation that would create a program within the department supporting at least 10 “technology hubs” in regions that are not already leading innovation centers. The committee adopted an amendment to the reconciliation legislation from Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-KS) that requires at least one-third of the grants or cooperative agreements awarded to implement regional initiatives go to EPSCoR jurisdictions or “a rural or other underserved community.”

NIST would receive $4.2 billion over 10 years, of which $1 billion is for facility upgrades and $1.2 billion is for research on “artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum information science and technology, biotechnology, communications technologies, advanced manufacturing, resilience to natural hazards including wildfires, greenhouse gas and other climate-related measurement.” The remaining $2 billion would be split between the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and support for “advanced manufacturing research, development, and testbeds.”

The committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) that allocates $150 million of the funds to creating a new Manufacturing USA Institute focused on semiconductor manufacturing, while rejecting an amendment that would have allocated $600 million to microelectronics R&D. Johnson said she opposed the latter measure because it would leave other priorities underfunded but noted she supports funding the CHIPS for America Act through separate legislation.

NOAA would receive $4.3 billion over five years through the reconciliation legislation to support activities in weather and climate research, forecasting, and decision support, as well as associated observation and computing infrastructure. The bill would provide $1.2 billion for Hurricane Hunter aircraft and phased array radar as well as $743 million for updating research facilities and equipment.

Of the remainder, $765 million would go to developing a “climate-ready workforce” and to distributing “actionable climate information” to communities across the U.S., reflecting committee Democrats’ interest in bolstering NOAA’s suite of climate services. In addition, $173 million would support space weather observation and preparedness activities authorized by the committee’s recently enacted PROSWIFT Act, including accelerated work on a new observation satellite.

Environmental Protection Agency

EPA would receive $264 million over five years for a variety of climate change R&D and mitigation activities. These include better characterizing cumulative pollution impacts, developing a “grants-based regional climate science network,” and “increasing engagement capacity with frontline communities with environmental justice concerns in translating, utilizing, and evaluating scientific research results.”

Hurdles complicate path to finish line

Aside from the Science Committee, some other House committees have also proposed providing portions of their reconciliation package allocations to R&D-related efforts. 

For instance, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s draft legislation would provide $3 billion for the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health and a $16 billion downpayment on the White House’s newly released $65 billion pandemic preparedness plan. The committee also included $10 billion over 10 years to create a manufacturing supply chain resiliency program at the Commerce Department that would support monitoring, standards, and technology-development efforts.

The Natural Resources Committee has proposed to provide $375 million over 10 years to the U.S. Geological Survey, mostly for water and climate science programs, and more than $10 billion over 10 years for NOAA, mostly for climate adaptation and mitigation measures and some infrastructure projects, including $300 million for vessel recapitalization and $500 million for upgrades to coastal data systems. 

The Education and Labor Committee’s proposal would allocate $2 billion to Minority Serving Institutions to build out R&D infrastructure, including instructional and research spaces relating to STEM, the arts, or other disciplines. The funds could also be used to provide direct financial support to faculty and to create new research internships, fellowships, and postdoctoral positions. The Small Business Committee’s legislation would provide $150 million over 10 years to support internships and fellowships in STEM fields and $525 million to support “innovative startups” and other businesses focused on commercializing advanced technologies. 

As the pieces of the reconciliation package are assembled, congressional leaders will also have to negotiate a path forward for the legislation.

Some House Democrats have insisted that, unless the package moves ahead, they will not support the bipartisan infrastructure spending bill that they have resolved to vote on by Sept. 27. At the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has said the House will develop its proposals in tandem with the Senate, which has not yet released counterpart legislation. However, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) insists the chamber is moving “full speed ahead” despite a call from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) for a “strategic pause” on the effort. 

Manchin has reportedly also said he would only accept a package closer to $1 trillion, but some Democrats have stated they would not accept a total that is significantly smaller than the current $3.5 trillion target. Such tensions could potentially derail both the reconciliation and the bipartisan infrastructure packages, or they could result in a compromise.

If a compromise reduces the scale of the reconciliation package, influential players could insist on preserving at least some of its R&D-related provisions, even though its primary purpose is to fund social programs and climate change mitigation.

Notably, Manchin championed the energy technology projects in the bipartisan package and has said he supports providing $35 billion for DOE facilities beyond what has been proposed elsewhere. In addition, Schumer has made scaling up NSF one of his top priorities this year, and recently indicated he intends to use the reconciliation package for that purpose.

FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact fyi [at] aip.org.