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US spending deal buoys science agency budgets

23 December 2019

Congress again largely ignored the White House budget proposal and provided funding increases to most federal science agencies.

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.
The newly approved spending deal provides funding for projects such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is under construction in Chile. Credit: LSST Project/NSF/AURA, CC BY 4.0

Congress has completed its work on appropriations for fiscal year 2020. On Friday President Trump signed two bills passed last week that cover all federal agencies. Several science agencies will receive budget increases that are proportionally comparable to the increase in federal spending caps that Congress agreed to last summer. Some will see larger increases, including the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, and US Geological Survey.

Fiscal year 2020, by the numbers.

Here are some notable budgetary developments related to science agencies:

  • DOE’s Office of Science will receive a 6% increase, bringing its budget to an even $7 billion. Since FY 2017, its budget has increased by 30%. The office’s Fusion Energy Sciences program will receive a significantly larger boost of 19% to accommodate an increase in the US contribution to the ITER project (see the article by Richard Hawryluk and Hartmut Zohm, Physics Today, December 2019, page 34). The legislation also allocates $195 million from across the office’s programs to quantum information science, including $75 million for establishing up to five research centers, as called for in the National Quantum Initiative Act.
  • DOE’s applied R&D programs will receive large increases in FY 2020. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is entering his last year as chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for DOE, recently said he would like federal energy R&D funding to double within five years as a way to address climate change. This year, the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will increase by 20% to $2.85 billion. The Office of Nuclear Energy will receive a 13% increase to $1.49 billion, which includes $230 million for a new program to support advanced reactor demonstration projects. The budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy will increase by 16% to a new record high of $425 million.
  • The National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget will increase by 10% to $16.7 billion, building on a multiyear spending surge for efforts to modernize the US nuclear weapons stockpile and associated infrastructure.
  • The budgets for NSF’s research and education accounts will each increase by 3%, to $6.74 billion and $940 million, respectively. The legislation meets the agency’s requests for continuing construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile, modernizing Antarctic infrastructure, and beginning to contribute to the Large Hadron Collider’s high-luminosity upgrade project in Europe. It provides $65 million to launch a new midscale research infrastructure program.
  • The appropriation for NASA includes full funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, and Europa Clipper missions. Congress is significantly increasing funding for human exploration activities, but it will not provide all that NASA has indicated it needs to meet the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024 (see Physics Today, July 2019, page 22).
  • NIH will see its fifth straight year of multibillion-dollar growth. The appropriation includes dedicated funding for major initiatives in cancer, brain, and precision medicine research. Congress also directs NIH to “implement measures that attend to harassment in extramural settings with the same level of attention and resources as those devoted to other research misconduct” and to require that grantee institutions notify the agency when key project personnel are removed due to “sexual harassment concerns.”
  • NOAA’s budget will drop by 1% to $5.35 billion, owing to a planned ramp-down in weather satellite acquisition programs. Funding for the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will increase by  4% to $590 million. Most of that increase is directed toward climate and oceans research programs. The legislation also supports the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, which will aim to reestablish the US as a global leader in weather forecasting.
  • Congress is not providing funding to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, as the House had proposed. However, the legislation states that stakeholders in Congress will “continue to evaluate” recommendations from a recent report by the National Academy of Public Administration for addressing gaps in Congress’s access to science and technology expertise. Congress is increasing the Government Accountability Office’s budget by $40 million and notes that it will allow the office to continue to enhance its work on science and technology issues.

The text of the two bills and the accompanying explanatory statements, which provide detailed funding and policy direction, are available here. Direction provided earlier this year in the House and Senate committee reports on their spending proposals will also apply unless superseded by new language. Links to those reports as well as tables summarizing final funding outcomes are available in the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a 17 December post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

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