In 2012 Drama, Science an Early Budget Winner ... But Fight Has Just Begun

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Do big proposed increases for science in today's budget mean Obama cares more about it than other programs, like support for the needy? On today's 2012 budget request to Congress The New Republic opines:

Obama's previous budgets were the president's way of signaling, to members of his own party, what initiatives he intended to pursue and roughly what resources he expected Congress to give him. … [This] budget is more of an opening bid in a tough, rancorous negotiation. That means you should evaluate the document as a signal of political strategy, not simply a statement of policy priorities. And that makes it tougher to judge.

Both conservatives and liberals agree: the main pressure pushing the federal deficit is entitlements; the discretionary budget is dwarfed by mandatory Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending. And yet neither the House of Representatives Republican appropriators' proposal to tackle the deficit starting in 2011 nor Obama's new budget for next year tackles the real challenge of entitlements. Instead, both pick and choose the discretionary cuts they want to start with.

So the grand bargaining begins.

As key priorities of the president, science and energy did very well in the internal budget process that led to today's document, led by the Office of Management and Budget. The Energy Department was the big winner with a proposed 11% increase. The National Institutes of Health gets a 2.4% increase over their 2010 level; and NASA is held basically flat—for 5 years. "We applaud the president's continuing commitment to scientific research and innovation," said the Association of American Universities. In the triage that his aides had to conduct for the president to commit to a 5-year freeze on nonsecurity spending, science won out because it's a key Administration priority and has therefore gotten special attention from House Republicans looking to cut. Meanwhile, progressive groups are furious over cuts Obama has proposed to programs like college Pell Grant scholarships and home heating subsidies.

By contrast Republicans, in crafting a budget for the rest of this fiscal year, wielded knives all over the budget, making deeper cuts at favorite programs of liberals like the college grants, heating assistance, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which they want to zero out. But they also took aim as well at Obama Administration priorities like the Office of Science, the Energy Department organization that funds most U.S. basic physical science, proposing a 19% cut of $943 billion. Expect similar proposed cuts for 2012 when lawmakers introduce their versions of next year's budget in the coming months.

But as The New Republic noted, the proposals from both sides should be viewed as first steps in what will be months of negotiations. The high numbers from Obama for key science agencies suggest that they could end up somewhere in the middle, given how low House appropriators have put them. But Republicans may be less inclined to cut programs that are viewed as less important Obama priorities, like farm loans or water infrastructure funding. So we won't know until the bargaining and the politicking plays out.

See our complete coverage of Budget 2012.

Posted in Funding Budget 2012