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Congress Completes Work on 2013 Spending Bill

25 March 2013 5:35 pm
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U.S. research agencies finally know what they have to spend for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year after Congress completed work on 20 March on a bill to fund the government through 30 September.

The heavy lifting was completed by the Senate, and, on 21 March, the House of Representatives accepted the Senate's version. The so-called continuing resolution modifies some of the more onerous aspects of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester that went into effect earlier this month. But the spending bill retains the overall $85 billion reduction in a trillion-dollar budget that covers discretionary spending (which covers most science agencies).

The Senate bill provides a detailed spending road map for the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology that includes congressional preferences. But other research agencies, notably the National Institutes of Health, have received very little guidance beyond an overall amount they can spend.

Details on specific agencies and issues below:

NOAA Endures Stormy Politics, Emerges Mostly Intact
David Malakoff, 5:35 p.m. on 25 March

Dickering over the National Oceanoic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) 2013 budget caused plenty of sturm and drang over the past year. But the final outcome has agency advocates feeling somewhat serene. "NOAA did well given the constraints of a very tough budget situation—not perfect, but it could have been much, much worse," says Scott Rayder, a former top NOAA aide who is now a senior adviser at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The bottom line: Thanks to Superstorm Sandy, NOAA will have about $5.2 billion to spend in fiscal year 2013, some $300 million more than its 2012 total. All of that increase, however, comes from a Sandy relief bill approved earlier this year that specifies how the agency must use the funds. The result is that some of NOAA's research accounts will still feel pain from the automatic cuts known as the sequester.

The math can be hard to follow. Overall, Congress gave NOAA $5.1 billion in its final 2013 spending bill, matching the president's request. At first glance, that total appears to be an increase. But the bill also requires a cut of nearly 2% to bring the agency's budget, in line with government-wide spending limits, reducing the total to about $5 billion. The sequester—about a 5% cut—further reduces the total to about $4.74 billion, some $150 million below NOAA's 2012 total of $4.89 billion.

The Sandy relief bill finalized in February, however, added $476 million to NOAA's budget for a range of specific needs, such as repairing laboratories and "hurricane hunter" aircraft and new weather radars and satellites. The add-on put NOAA back into the black for 2013, despite the sequester, and gives the agency greater spending flexibility for some programs.

Other programs, however, will still feel pain. The largest, including its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the National Marine Fisheries Service, are likely to end up with flat or slightly reduced budgets. And at least one research-related program will cease to exist. Congress endorsed a controversial plan to shut down NOAA's National Undersea Research Program (NURP) , a $4 million program that gives academic scientists access to research submersibles, and to fold it into the agency's broader ocean exploration program. But lawmakers also directed NOAA to take a close look at the NURP's regional partnerships with universities and other groups. Those "producing the most valuable scientific information," they agreed, should be allowed to compete for continuing funding. The agency will also have to tell Congress what it plans to do with NURP's small fleet of piloted and automated undersea craft.

Lawmakers shelved another controversial proposal, which called for transferring funding for a troubled, $11.9 billion weather satellite program from NOAA to NASA. But moving the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) to NASA "in the middle of a fiscal year could potentially result in further launch delays," lawmakers stated in language attached to NOAA's final spending bill. Lawmakers should keep studying the issue, it added. At the same time, Congress gave NOAA a total of nearly $2 billion to keep JPSS and other weather satellite programs on track to launch new spacecraft later this decade. NOAA is also supposed to use some of the funding to figure out how to fill a 17- to 53-month-long gap in data provided by the satellites, which could begin as early as 2014.

Department of Energy's Science Programs Get Double Whammy
David Malakoff, 4:25 p.m. on 25 March

No news wasn't good news for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) primary research division, the Office of Science. While Congress took steps to ease the sting for several science agencies of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, it gave DOE's research programs a tiny budget cut and no new spending flexibility.

Overall, the continuing resolution provides the Office of Science with $4.876 billion for the 2013 fiscal year, a $13 million reduction from 2012 levels. But the pain doesn't end there. The Office of Science will also lose about $215 million a result of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, according to DOE officials, bringing its 2013 total to $4.661 billion.

The cuts are expected to have "significant and potentially lasting impacts" on DOE's research funding programs and sprawling complex of particle accelerators, x-ray light sources, and other science facilities, science office chief William Brinkman told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on 5 March. The impacts are expected to include reductions in the number of grants, lengthy furloughs for employees at DOE laboratories, and delays in upgrades to facilities. The spending crunch could also complicate plans to launch any new projects, which are generally blocked by the continuing resolution unless given specific permission by Congress. 

Homeland Security Science Rebounds
David Malakoff, 4:25 p.m. on 21 March

If there's a comeback player of the year in the spending bill approved today, it is research and development programs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In 2012, DHS's research, development, and innovation program took a 54% cut—from $459.6 million to $265.8 million—as a result of a largely unrelated political battle over how to cover natural disaster relief funding after an especially bad string of floods, storms, and droughts. Today's bill, however, restores funding nearly to 2011 levels (although the numbers below do not reflect an additional 0.09% reduction that Congress applied to a wide range of programs, and DHS must still apply a 5% sequester cut to many of its major accounts).

DHS's primary research account will rise to $450.6 million. That's less than the $478 million requested by President Barack Obama in his 2013 budget submission, but nearly $185 million higher than the 2012 level.

Overall, the DHS science and technology division will get $835 million, roughly even with 2011. Included in that total is $164.9 million for laboratories, with $37.5 million set aside for the controversial National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a highly secure laboratory that DHS has proposed building in Manhattan, Kansas. The White House had proposed no 2013 funding for NBAF, which has been dogged by questions about its safety, cost, and usefulness. It is now undergoing several reviews.

DHS's small university grants program, which primarily supports a dozen centers devoted to specific research issues, also saw its budget rebound to $40 million, up $3.5 million from 2012 and back to 2011 levels.

Smithsonian Takes Budget in Stride
Elizabeth Pennisi, 4:15 p.m. on 21 March

Congress has given the Smithsonian Institution $4 million more to pay for the people and operating costs needed to run its 19 museums and galleries, a zoo, and six research facilities such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The extra money is expected to help the agency staff an African American museum scheduled to open in 2015.

Salaries and expenses account for roughly three-fourths of its federal allocation, which was set at $815.5 million for the fiscal year ending on 30 September. But Smithsonian officials don't actually have that much to spend. Instead, they must find some $40 million in savings because of the government-wide sequester that went into effect on 1 March. A hiring freeze, deferred maintenance, and reduction in outside contracts will help the Smithsonian comply with the sequester. The belt-tightening also removes any money for major scientific instrumentation and reduces the budget for acquiring new items for its collections. But the Smithsonian has no plans for furloughs or reducing the hours that its museums are open to the public, says Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas.

The Smithsonian's request for FY 2013, contained in the president's budget submission more than a year ago, included $15 million to renovate a lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, $7 million for a STRI lab, and $4 million to expand collection storage space. At this time, it's "unknown how much money we will have for those," St. Thomas says.

NSF Gets a Boost but Political Science Takes a Hit

Jeffrey Mervis, 3:25 p.m. on 21 March

A powerful U.S. senator has eased the pain of sequestration at the National Science Foundation (NSF). But she couldn't ward off an assault by conservative legislators on NSF's political science research.

Using her influence as the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) managed to restore nearly half of the 5% budget cut that NSF was set to receive under the government-wide sequester. As part of the final spending bill for 2013 that Congress approved today, NSF will receive $6.83 billion. That figure represents a 2.9% cut from NSF's current $7 billion budget.

NSF must still save $356 million to comply with the sequester. But now it has a larger base from which to apply those cuts. The result is likely to be many fewer new grants lost than the 1000 that NSF had initially projected, and even less impact on the early-career scientists, graduate students, and postdocs that NSF has said are a priority.

At the same time, an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) prevents NSF from awarding any grants in political science unless the NSF director can explain how that research will "promot[e] national security or the economic interests of the United States." NSF now spends roughly $10 million on the discipline as part of its social and economic sciences portfolio.

How did Mikulski do it? The longest-serving female senator had previously led the subpanel that controls the purse strings for NSF and several other science agencies before she succeeded Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who died in December, as chair of the full committee. Mikulski convinced her Republican counterpart, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), to back her plan to insert a detailed spending plan for the agencies covered by that subpanel, and a few others, in the final bill.

Pulling NSF out of the CR and giving it a regular appropriation allowed Mikulski to increase spending for several NSF programs beyond what they would have received under the CR. For example, she set funding for NSF's research account at what the agency had requested in the president's 2013 budget submission, which was a 5.2% increase over 2012. Her figure of $5.98 billion is even $50 million above an earlier Senate mark and $100 million above the House of Representatives mark.

She also added $20 million to the president's request for NSF's education directorate, to $896 million. Within that directorate, she told NSF not to proceed with plans to shrink its informal learning (museums and other nonclassroom activities) program. And she added $5 million to Advanced Technological Education, which supports community and 2-year colleges, telling NSF to find the money from other education activities.

Mikulski also protected funding for several large facilities now under construction. NSF had already said that the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Ocean Observatories Initiative were priorities. But because of a budget technicality, the $196 million facilities account was scheduled to take a $35 million hit. The final bill language eliminates that glitch and means that both projects will likely be able to stay on schedule.

Now that the dust has settled, NSF is assessing what Coburn's amendment means for its support of political science. "NSF's charter is to fund basic science and engineering research across all disciplines, including research that fosters understanding of human factors that can sustain our environment, prevent illness, maintain a robust economy, curtail conflict and advance democracy," said NSF's Judith Gan, head of legislative and public affairs, in a statement to ScienceInsider.

In a statement after yesterday's vote on his amendment, Coburn said: "I'm pleased the Senate accepted an amendment that restricts funding to low-priority political science grants." An earlier amendment from Coburn and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that was never put up for a vote would have blocked all NSF funding of political science research and shifted $7 million to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. The amendment that passed, by a nonrecorded voice vote, instead allows NSF to apply any savings to "other scientific research and studies that do not duplicate those being funded by other Federal agencies."

NIH Gets Little Relief
Jocelyn Kaiser, 2:30 p.m.
on 21 March

Although the final 2013 spending bill included full-year spending bills for some science agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) didn't get that special treatment. Instead, being part of a continuing resolution means flat funding at its 2012 level of about $31 billion.

The bill contains a small $67 million increase for the agency, but this will do little to soften the blow of the $1.5 billion cut, or 5%, that NIH is receiving because of the across-the-board sequestration cuts that went into effect on 1 March. "We have cut funding for biomedical research with this bill," says Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative relations director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

NIH-funded investigators had already begun feeling the effects of these impeding cuts. Institutes have been funding fewer grants than normal and have cut the approved budgets of ongoing, multi-year grants by 10%. The agency said last month that it expected to restore only a portion of that cut, and will fund hundreds fewer grants, if sequestration went through. "There's not going to be a sharp impact. It's more of a pernicious effect because it's this erosion," says David Moore, senior director for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. NIH institutes, which will equally share the 5% sequestration cut, are expected to release their detailed plans for how to make cuts in the next couple of weeks.

The bill also discusses the troubled National Children's Study (NCS), which has spent $1 billion since 2000 on a pilot phase. The bill approves the $165 million that NIH requested for the study in 2013 but says that by 15 July the NIH director should estimate how much the study actually needs and spread any leftover funds among NIH's institutes and centers. It also tells NIH to contract within 60 days with the National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM) to have an expert panel review the study's methodology for recruiting pregnant women. NIH can't issue contracts for the full study until at least 60 days after the IOM report comes out.

The IOM review will likely mean a year's delay in launching the full study. But NCS investigator Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University in East Lansing, a long-time critic of NIH's management of the study, says if a 1-year pause "makes for a better study, it will have been worth it."

Correction, 22 March, 10:45 a.m.: The item has been revised to reflect the fact that the $71 million increase received by NIH will be reduced 5% by sequestration.

NASA's Planetary Programs Get a Lifeline
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, 1:20 p.m. on 21 March

The administration's 2013 budget proposal for NASA would have delivered a big blow to planetary science, but the field appears to have been rescued by Congress. The final 2013 spending bill includes $1.42 billion for planetary science, a figure that's a fair bit healthier than the $1.19 billion the White House had proposed. (That and other NASA numbers, however, also have to be reduced by a 0.09% reduction that Congress applied to a wide range of programs. And NASA must still apply the 5% sequester cut to all of its major accounts.)

The funding in the final bill restores a part of the cut that the White House wanted to make to the Mars Exploration Program. The agency will now have $450 million to spend on Mars exploration, about $90 million more than what the administration wanted. That's still $137 million below the 2012 appropriation, but it should allow the agency to proceed with the planning of a Mars mission for later in the decade. Another winner is the outer planets program, which will get $159 million—about $37 million more than what it got in 2012. The administration had proposed shrinking it to $84 million.

The funding for other portfolios within NASA science will stay roughly at the 2012 levels. That includes $628 million for the James Webb Space Telescope, $669 million for astrophysics, and $1.78 billion for earth science. The total funding for science is $5.14 billion, a slight improvement over the 2012 figure of $5.09 billion.

In all, the agency will have $17.86 billion to spend in FY 2013 before it applies the sequester. Its current budget is $17.77 billion.

This article was originally published at 11:55 a.m. on 21 March.

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