Congress Gives Science Funding a Boost

22 July 1997 7:00 pm

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), chair of a spending panel that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), kept to his word today, delivering a 7.5% increase for the agency's 1998 budget. Later in the day, the full Senate finished a major spending bill that offers relatively good news for researchers funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both moves augur well for science funding at a time when overall government spending is being cut to balance the federal budget.

Today's action by the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations subcommittee, which Specter chairs, would give NIH a $952 million increase over current spending and lift its 1998 budget to almost $13.7 billion. The next stop for the bill is the full appropriations committee, followed by a floor vote before Congress leaves for a monthlong August recess. Last week the House voted a 6% increase, which was more than double the president's 1998 request. A final bill, reconciling differences in the House and Senate versions, is expected to be hammered out in September.

The Senate bill for NASA, NSF, and EPA is part of a larger appropriation that includes housing and veterans' care. Despite tight limits on overall spending levels for those agencies, legislators managed to stay close to the president's request for research in most programs while falling short of the more generous allocation already approved by the House. For NSF, that would mean a $10 million hike in its $3.367 billion request but $110 million below the House level, while for NASA, the $13.5 billion matches the president's level and falls $148 million below the House. EPA's science and technology programs would receive $600 million, $56 million less than the House has allotted and $15 million below the president's request.

Senators placed strings on some of these funds, however. For NSF officials, the most egregious was a provision to move a proposed $25 million Polar Cap Observatory from Canada's Northwest Territory, near the magnetic north pole, to a Defense Department ionospheric research laboratory under construction in southern Alaska. Scientists say that the new location would severely hamper the facility's ability to monitor unique upper atmospheric conditions at the pole, but the spending panel, on the advice of Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), said it would avoid "wasteful duplicate investments." Legislators also ordered NSF to begin a $40 million plant genome initiative within its regular research program, a project trumpeted by the Corn Growers Association and hailed by Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), chair of the Senate panel that oversees NSF, as "critical to future food production and human health."

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