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Scientists Wait for Congress to Allocate Funds Under New Budget Agreement

13 December 2013 2:45 pm
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Scientists Wait for Congress to Allocate Funds Under New Budget Agreement

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Last night’s passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of a 2-year budget agreement brings the country one step closer to a temporary end of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. That’s a victory for U.S. researchers who say the universally scorned cuts have undermined U.S. leadership in science.

But even if the Senate, as expected, approves the agreement next week, the scientific community will still be a long way from achieving its long-term goal of sustained growth in federal research spending. And it could be a month before scientists learn the extent to which federal research agencies will benefit from the deal.

The agreement, announced on 10 December, provides $22 billion more in 2014 for the slice of the federal budget that supports all civilian research than would have been available if sequestration had stayed in place. That account, called nondefense discretionary spending, will grow by 4.7%, to $491 billion, in the 2014 fiscal year. In 2015, the pot gets an additional $9 billion bump over what it would have been under sequestration, although the total creeps up by less than $1 billion.

Academic lobbyists have vociferously complained about sequestration, created under a 2011 law aimed at shrinking the federal deficit over the next decade. In March, it resulted in a 5% cut in agency budgets for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year, which ended on 30 September.

Lobbyists say those cuts slowed research aimed at improving the nation’s health, economic prosperity, and national security, and that keeping them in place would do even more serious damage. So research advocates were unanimous in praising what Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, called “a modest but important easing of sequestration.”

The budget agreement temporarily reconciles disparate political views on how to reduce an annual deficit that grew to $1.4 trillion in 2009 before dipping to $680 million in 2013. Most Republicans would like to cut spending, especially for mandatory programs like Medicare, without raising taxes. Most Democrats favor an increase in revenues to protect various domestic programs. There is bipartisan support for sparing the military, which bore one-half of the cuts under sequestration.

The compromise struck this week will mean a bit more spending and a few revenue “enhancements,” along with a 2-year extension to 2023 of the original budget agreement. Sequestration remains a threat, but not until 2016.

“As cynical and pessimistic as I’ve become about the process over the 29 years I’ve been doing this, there are some glimmers of hope,” says Dave Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. “One is that we’ll be able to be more certain about spending for next 2 years.”

One reason for Moore’s optimism is the return of what is known as “regular order,” meaning allowing spending panels in both the House and Senate to specify the budgets of every federal agency. The work is parceled out to 12 appropriations subcommittees, and several of the subcommittees reported out bills earlier this year as part of that process.

Without exception, the House bills awarded less money for research than their Senate counterparts (see table, below). That’s in large part because senators had $91 billion more to work with than their House counterparts.

The budget agreement eliminates that difference by providing about $45 billion more in 2014 than the House level. “The final [budget] numbers came in higher than a lot of people would have predicted when they started negotiating,” Moore notes. “So it does give the appropriators some latitude in restoring the cuts” to the National Institutes of Health and other research agencies.

Those earlier spending bills are expected to form the basis for a final agreement. But instead of having several months to work through the budget, appropriators will have only a few weeks to beat a 15 January deadline for avoiding another government shutdown.

Legislators now have several options for completing work on the 2014 budget. They could simply split the differences between the House and Senate versions for the thousands of programs within each spending bill. But because budget bills are an ideal way for members to exert their influence, it’s more likely that there will be winners and losers among agency programs. And given the short time frame, lobbyists from the scientific community will have little chance to influence their deliberations.

If Congress cannot pass separate appropriations bills, it could instead roll all spending into one package, called an omnibus bill. Or it could pass a few spending bills and wrap the rest into a smaller omnibus.

If the process breaks down completely, the current continuing resolution (CR), which freezes spending at 2013 levels, could be extended for weeks or months until cooler heads prevail. However, CRs tend to treat all programs equally, making it harder for science advocates to argue for protecting research.

 

Status of 2014 Appropriations for Select U.S. Science Agencies

   

(US$ in billions)

 
       
 

AGENCY or PROGRAM

2014 HOUSE MARK

2014 SENATE MARK

 

National Institutes of Health

none

30.95

 

National Science Foundation

6.994

7.425

 

      Research

5.676

6.018

 

      Education

0.825

0.88

 

DOE Office of Science

4.653

5.152

 

Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy

0.050

0.379

 

National Institute of Standards and Technology

0.784

0.947

 

   Science & technology  labs

0.609

0.703

 

Census Bureau

0.844

0.982

 

NASA

16.60

18.01

 

    Science Office

4.78

5.15

 

Agricultural

Research Service

1.074

1.123

 

National Institute

of Food & Agriculture

0.718

0.772

 

Agriculture and Food Research Initiative

0.290

0.316

 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

 

 

Operations & Research

3.037

3.296

 

Office of

Atmospheric Research

0.348

0.446

 

Joint Polar Satellite System

0.824

0.824