House Appropriators Propose Big Cuts to Earth Sciences

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Deep cuts in earth science budgets for several U.S. agencies are in store next year under a proposed budget that awaits a vote by the House of Representatives. Under the plan drafted by the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee and approved Wednesday by the full appropriations committee, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would receive a $100 million cut below its current $4.5 billion budget. The plan also includes a $100 million less for NASA’s $1.7 billion earth science budget than the agency has proposed. Climate programs at the U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, are also under the knife under a different proposed spending bill.

“There are a number of areas in this bill that, under different circumstances, I would have preferred to fund at different levels,” subcommittee chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) said at a hearing last week when his panel marked up the $50.2 billion spending bill. “However, the House-passed budget resolution established our allocation and, accordingly, this subcommittee produced a strong bill with strategic investments in national security, job creation, and science.”

For NOAA, “it’s the same problem they’ve had for the last 5 years—how do they ramp up the satellite programs without affecting the rest of their operations,” said lobbyist Kevin Wheeler of Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. The proposed $100 million cut comes at the same time the committee endorsed a big increase for satellite systems that provide remote sensing for the planet. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which received $472 million this fiscal year, would get an increase of $429 million, for a total of $901 million. But that increase would be taken from other NOAA programs. The Obama Administration had asked for $1.06 billion for NOAA’s share of the JPSS program in 2012.

NOAA has not released details on how its $4.5 billion budget for 2011 has been allocated. So the proposed House cuts to specific programs can only be compared with 2010 levels. According to an analysis by Ocean Conservancy, a D.C. nonprofit organization, the bill would cut ocean research by 44% compared with 2010 and nonresearch ocean and fisheries programs by roughly 30%. “It doesn’t help that the ocean doesn’t have a congressman,” says spokesperson Timothy McHugh of Ocean Conservancy.

Despite the large increase for JPSS, considered a crucial tool for maintaining long-lasting climate and environmental research records, oceanographer Antonio Busalacchi says not funding JPSS for the full 2011 “only serves to drag out the funding profile for JPSS, which will cost the country more in total program costs while seriously jeopardizing the nation's operational capability for continuous weather monitoring and prediction.” Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, run jointly by the University of Maryland, College Park, and NASA, was co-author on an influential 2007 report by the National Academies on earth remote sensing.

The cut to the earth science program at NASA is part of a proposed $16.8 billion budget for NASA as a whole, $1.6 billion below the current year budget. The bill protects funding for human space flight, including a crew vehicle and launch system. "While the Committee supports Earth Science functions, this area has rapidly grown over the past few fiscal years, and the current constrained fiscal environment simply cannot sustain the spending patterns envisioned by NASA in this field," said committee members in a report.

That statement “ is very misleading, as it does not take into account the years of neglect and declining budgets for NASA Earth Science during the previous Administration,” says Busalacchi. “Coupled with considerably increased costs for access to space,” he adds, “this cut, plus the wording to protect specific missions, leaves NASA with very little flexibility to maintain a balanced approach to earth system science.”

Cuts to climate and environment programs in the Interior and Environment spending bill, which has been passed by the appropriations committee but is yet to be taken up by the full House, include $83 million from the $371 million spent in various climate-related work conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. In a statement, the committee explained its rationale:

That the climate is changing is not in dispute. However, recent rapid increases in funding and the number of new and seemingly duplicative programs are potentially wasteful. From 2008 to 2011, bill-wide climate change funding grew from $192 million to $371 million—a staggering 93 percent increase. In spite of concerns expressed repeatedly by the Committee, there is still no clear indication of how these funds are coordinated.

That language is an implicit criticism of the White House’s Global Change Research Program, which is meant to coordinate climate research across the government.

Posted in Funding, Earth