House Panel to Take Second Bite Out of Science Budgets

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was a major outlier in the list of proposed cuts for 2011 announced yesterday by the spending panel for the U.S. House of Representatives. While the list represented a $35 billion down payment on a post-election promise by House Republicans to trim the federal budget by $100 billion, NSF appeared in line for a rare increase, one that would have preserved most of the half-billion-dollar hike requested last year by President Barack Obama.

But the good news for NSF was short-lived. Pushed by fiscal conservatives to keep the party's promise, panel chairman Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY) declared today that he would go back to the drawing board in search of additional cuts. His decision suggests that the panel's relatively modest $139 million hit to NSF's request for $7.4 billion in 2011 could grow significantly larger. And science agencies already looking at serious cuts—including a 20% squeeze on research at the Department of Energy's $5 billion Office of Science and a $1 billion reduction at the $30 billion National Institutes of Health—could fare even worse than they did the first time around. Others may soon join the hard-hit list.

The vehicle for these cuts by the appropriations committee is the so-called continuing resolution (CR), under which every federal agency has continued to operate at 2010 levels for more than 4 months into the next fiscal year. (The federal fiscal year begins on 1 October of the previous calendar year.) The current CR expires on 4 March, at which point Congress will either adopt a yearlong CR or further extend the current resolution.

"After meeting with my subcommittee chairs, we have determined that the CR can and will reach a total of $100 billion in cuts compared to the President's request immediately - fully meeting the goal outlined in the Republican 'Pledge to America' in one fell swoop," Rogers said in a statement. "Our intent is to make deep but manageable cuts in nearly every area of government, leaving no stone unturned and allowing no agency or program to be held sacred. I have instructed my committee to include these deeper cuts, and we are continuing to work to complete this critical legislation."

Even as Rogers was promising further cuts, one of those subcommittee chairs—Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA)-was extolling the virtues of NSF and declaring how important its work was to the country's economic well-being. The occasion was the second in a series of oversight hearings by the panel on managing research within its jurisdiction, which includes NSF, NASA, and the Department of Commerce. "In the face of the CR currently being marked up, we are doing everything we can to protect NSF because I think we are in danger of falling behind the rest of the world in science and education," Wolf told NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner. After the hearing, Wolf declined to comment on whether he expected the figure for NSF to change in the next iteration. Bottom of Form

Rogers didn't say when the second shoe would drop. House leaders had planned to vote out the appropriations bill today and have it adopted by the full House before the end of next week. But the restart jeopardizes that schedule. Then the bill must go to the Senate, whose Democratic leaders haven't staked out their position on the size of the 2011 cuts.

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