Congress Sets Slightly Higher Science Budgets

November 17, 2011

Congress approved a budget measure on Thursday setting $128-billion in spending in the current fiscal year for several departments and agencies, including allocations near the same or slightly above last year's levels for key science accounts.

The bill also keeps the federal government operating past Friday, by renewing a temporary extension of spending at last year's levels for all parts of the government still without an approved budget for the fiscal 2012 year, which began October 1.

The House of Representatives approved the agreement Thursday afternoon on a vote of 298 to 121, and the Senate followed in the evening with a vote of 70 to 30. The measure now awaits its expected signing by President Obama.

The spending bill sets the National Science Foundation budget at $7-billion, or 3 percent over the NSF's fiscal 2011 levels. It also provides $17.8-billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, down 4 percent, and $4.9-billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up 7 percent.

It sets a budget of $751-million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, up 5 percent, and $2.5-billion for the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, down 2 percent.

The amounts approved for scientific research fell below the levels requested by Mr. Obama, including almost a 10 percent cut from his proposal for the National Science Foundation.

Congress, however, took its most direct swipe at the president's approach to science by slashing the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy's $6.6-million budget down to $4.5-million, a reduction of 32 percent.

The attack was largely the work of Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, who serves as chairman of the House panel with authority over the agency's budget and has been angered by the White House's pursuit of scientific exchanges with China.

Mr. Wolf has said the United States has "nothing to gain" from science cooperation with China and suggested it was analogous to a "bilateral program with Stalin." The budget cut won't mean any layoffs in the science office and isn't expected to have direct effects on universities, though the American Association for the Advancement of Science has suggested it may reduce the coordination and effectiveness of U.S. research spending.

The director of the science office, John P. Holdren, who came to the White House as a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University, said he found the move disappointing. The cut "will mean a lot of belt tightening and, inevitably, some reduction in the range of domains in which OSTP maintains a major presence," Mr. Holdren said.

Still, the net increase for science spending, especially for the NSF, shows there's still bipartisan support for research in Congress even in tough economic times, said Barry Toiv, spokesman for Association of American Universities.

"But Congress needs to stop targeting domestic discretionary spending for deficit reduction, or it may be impossible to sustain this level of funding for science," Mr. Toiv said.

The budget measure approved by Congress was dubbed a "minibus" because it combined several of the traditional budget categories, but was not an entire "omnibus" package that Congress often creates when it fails to finish the budget by the start of the federal fiscal year.

The bill also gave the Patent and Trademark Office a budget increase of 28 percent, to $2.7-billion, and gave the Food and Drug Administration a 2-percent increase to almost $2.5-billion. Along with $128-billion in discretionary spending, the bill included provisions for mandatory spending in the Agriculture Department, meaning amounts to which recipients are entitled under existing law, as well as some disaster-relief expenditures.

The bill did not set a final fiscal 2012 budget for the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of research money to universities. Mr. Obama has proposed an NIH budget of $31.7-billion, up 3 percent from fiscal 2011.