Super Science Suggestions: House Panel Lays Out Spending Preferences

17 October 2011 6:11 pm

The Republican leaders of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology have some suggestions on where to cut $1.5 billion from the fiscal year 2012 research budget—and they are drawing mixed reviews from science advocates.

The ideas—which include keeping the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) budget flat and cutting an array of climate science programs—are contained in an unusually detailed letter that the committee's chair, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), and 10 other members of the panel sent last Friday to the so-called super committee, which was created in August as part of a budget-deficit deal between the White House and Congress. It faces a 23 November deadline for devising a plan to trim at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next 10 years. Some of the committee's Democratic members, meanwhile, penned their own pleas to ensure "steady growth" of science funding but offered few specifics.

The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of both Senators and Representatives, had invited all committee heads and members of Congress to offer up suggestions by 14 October. Some ignored the offer, and many that publicly released their letters tended to stick to relatively generic themes, with Democrats often stressing the need to find new sources of revenue, and Republicans often highlighting opportunities for cuts. None of the suggestions are likely to carry much weight with the joint committee, but together they offer some insights into the current thinking on Capitol Hill.

In their 14-page letter, House Science Republicans offered recommendations for eight research agencies under their purview—but not for the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Defense, which are overseen by other panels. Overall, they wrote, their priority was to sustain "research and development programs that protect our national security and leadership, allow private investors and the marketplace to thrive without undue Federal influence, and have the most potential for sustained long-term growth."

In general, they took a back-to-basics approach, arguing that long-standing core programs at NSF, the Department of Energy (DOE), and elsewhere be sheltered from major cuts, while newer efforts—often championed by the Obama Administration—be scaled back. They took an especially dim view of programs that inject taxpayer dollars into efforts to commercialize new technologies, such as renewable energy systems, saying that they "are unnecessary and represent an inappropriate government involvement in the marketplace." And they questioned the need for a wide range of climate-related science programs, including a NASA satellite—the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), designed to map greenhouse gas emissions.

"It appears that they are recommending that climate science programs take a disproportionately bigger hit than other science programs," says Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and director for science and impacts at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.

Among the letter's specific recommendations:

NSF: The House panel backs the larger mark by its House colleagues—$6.86 billion—over the $6.70 billion proposed by Senate appropriators. Although the House figure would simply maintain NSF's current budget, and fall well below the Obama Administration's request for $7.77 billion, NSF advocates welcome the panel's backing for what they see as a more realistic funding level.

Within that flat budget, however, the panel would rearrange some of NSF's priorities. It is "concerned" that the proposed growth of NSF programs to improve manufacturing technologies in nanotechnology, robotics, and computing will "move the Foundation from its core mission of supporting basic research." Samuel Rankin III, head of the Consortium for NSF Funding and head of the Washington office of the American Mathematical Society, shares that worry. "It is true that NSF over the last several years has developed more focused initiatives," says Rankin. "I am pleased that the Science committee is recognizing that the true value of NSF is the support of basic research."

The letter-writers also objected to NSF's plans for a 50% hike in its Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program, now at $662 million. That's no surprise to Howard Silver, head of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, given what he calls its "oft-repeated skepticism about climate change." That skepticism, says Silver, also explains why the panel is "strongly opposed" to proposed increases for NSF's contribution to the government-wide U.S. global change research and technology programs, and its suggestion to eliminate a tiny climate change education program.

Within NSF's $872 million education directorate, the panel would protect the Noyce scholarships to train more science and math teachers and the Math and Science Partnerships program which links universities and school districts. "Current spending for these programs should be sustained," it declares. It also takes exception to what it calls the administration's plans to "shift a greater responsibility" for science, technology, engineering, and math education to the Department of Education, arguing that NSF's "world-class" expertise in those areas should not be ignored.

NASA: The agency could save $149 million over 5 years by canceling OCO-2, which is intended to replace an identical craft that crashed into the ocean near Antarctica in 2009 after a technical problem with the rocket carrying it into orbit. OCO-2 is being built by Orbital Sciences, the same Dulles, Virginia-based company that NASA had contracted with to put OCO in space. The observatory is supposed to map the distribution of greenhouse gases in real time to help improve climate models.

The letter also suggests other cuts to NASA science, including a 20% reduction to a new "Venture Class Missions" account that NASA wants to use to encourage low-cost missions to do innovative Earth science. All told, the cuts to NASA science would save the agency $177 million in 2012.

Department of Energy: "Clean tech" programs designed to increase energy efficiency and develop new energy technologies should take a hit, Hall and his colleagues argue. In particular, they take a roundhouse swipe at the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a favorite project of Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Proposed as part of the influential 2006 National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm—of which Chu was an author—ARPA-E is supposed to explore the most promising new energy technologies that industry can't or won't develop, handing off those that pan out to the private sector and quickly dumping others. Originally conceived as a $1 billion agency, ARPA-E got off the ground in 2009 with federal stimulus money and has a current budget of $170 million.

But that money isn't being well spent, the Republicans argue. They claim that, as feared, ARPA-E has "emphasize[d] late-stage technology development more appropriately performed by the private sector" and "inappropriately tended to position the government in a venture capital type of role." The letter states that ARPA-E has invested in several activities already being pursued by the private sector.

Cutting ARPA-E would be premature, says Laura Diaz Anadon, a chemical engineer and director of the energy technology innovation policy group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "We have to have time to evaluate whether the program is working or not," she says. And the overlap with funding from the private sector might be perfectly appropriate if the ARPA-E money came first, she says. "Everybody looked at the ARPA-E grants and then many of the firms got venture capital funding," says Diaz Anadon, whose group will issue a report on ARPA-E next month.

On the bright side for researchers, the science committee Republicans stick up for DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science, calling it "the top funding priority among DOE R&D programs." However, even there they would make cuts. Specifically, the legislators would trim DOE's biological and environmental research program from a current $612 million to $547 million by targeting climate research they say is already duplicated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NSF. They also expressed "concern" over the United States's commitment to the troubled international fusion experiment, ITER, which goes through the Office of Science's fusion energy science program.

NOAA: Committee Republicans are skeptical that one of the agency's biggest projects, the $10+ billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), can be built on time or on budget. It supports "a small redirection of funding" from the system to "explore more cost-effective options for obtaining the data necessary for timely and accurate weather forecasts." Those land- and air-based alternatives, however, probably "wouldn't help with climate monitoring," notes Pew's Gulledge. But he says it is encouraging that "they recognized the importance of JPSS."

Environmental Protection Agency: The lawmakers would eliminate $20.8 million that EPA's Office of Research and Development spends on "global change research" and would cut an unspecified amount of funding for the agency's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which assesses chemical hazards. The IRIS program has long been controversial.

In a 4-page letter released on 13 October, the ranking Democrat on the science committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), called for "continued federal investment in science and technology as an important component of any serious effort to achieve long-term deficit reduction." It is "critically important," she wrote, for the super committee to "include serious revenue enhancements in its set of recommendations. Failure to do so would likely lead to ill-advised pressures for cuts" to "vital areas." A separate letter circulated by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Rush Holt (D-NJ) urged the super committee to "ensure that deficit reduction policies strengthen, rather than harm, the nation's education, science and research infrastructure." Neither letter identified specific revenue sources or cuts.

Correction: This item has been corrected to reflect that the required deficit reductions total $1.2 trillion over 10 years, not $1.2 billion.

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