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U.S. Congress

Deal. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, marks completion of the 2014 budget with Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), her counterpart in the House.

U.S. Science Agencies Get Some Relief in 2014 Budget

By: 
Jeffrey Mervis
2014-01-14 15:45
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The ghost of former President George W. Bush permeates the 2014 budget that Congress released last night.  His presence is good news for physical scientists, but less cheery for biomedical researchers, as Congress reserved some of the biggest spending increases for NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE). The National Institutes of Health (NIH), meanwhile, got a $1 billion increase that is drawing mixed reviews from research advocates.

The deal released late on 13 January has its origins in a spending deal that Congress struck on 10 December. It eased the pain of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, calling for $1.012 trillion in 2014 discretionary spending. That is some $44 billion more than would have been available under a 2011 agreement that called for reducing the federal deficit by a trillion dollars over the next decade. But it took about a month for lawmakers to decide how to divvy up the money.

For agencies that provide major support for the physical sciences, the new budget represents a healthy boost over 2013 spending levels, which were depressed by the sequester’s 5% bite. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will receive $7.17 billion, an increase of 4.2%, for example, and NASA’s science programs will get $5.15 billion, a 7.7% jump. DOE’s Office of Science enjoys a 9.7% increase, to $5.07 billion, and DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy gets an 11.2% boost to $280 million. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology will see its budget grow 10.4%, to $850 million.

Except for NASA, those agencies were all part of a 2006 initiative launched by the Bush administration to increase funding for the physical sciences. Congress formalized the idea in a 2007 law, the America COMPETES Act. Although agencies never received the generous funding called for by COMPETES, which has recently expired after being reauthorized in 2010, its message appears to have survived: The physical sciences need to be strengthened to help the U.S. economy remain strong. President Barack Obama has continued that theme in his budget requests, including a bid last spring for large increases at several agencies (see table).

COMPETES did not cover NIH, whose budget had doubled between 1998 and 2004, to $27.2 billion. Since then, it has received much smaller boosts—with the huge exception of the 2009 stimulus, a one-time boost of $10.4 billion. Congress maintained that pattern of smaller increases this year: NIH’s 2014 budget will rise by 3.5%, to $29.9 billion.

The final spending plan wraps up 12 individual appropriation bills in a 1582-page package that is stuffed with provisions that address the concerns of individual legislators. Below are some highlights, by agency. (Look for updates as ScienceInsider continues to peruse the massive package.)

National Institutes of Health

Biomedical research advocates are offering mixed reaction to the NIH numbers. “It’s hard not to be pleased with a billion-dollar increase,” says David Moore, senior director of government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. But it “won’t adequately reverse the damage done by last year’s budget sequester and ensure the nation’s biomedical research enterprise makes continued progress,” says Carrie Wolinetz of United for Medical Research, a coalition of academic and industry groups.

Overall, the bill would allow NIH to fund 385 more research grants than it did in 2013, according to a statement from appropriators. That should help NIH recover from a drop in 722 competing grants last year compared with 2012 that resulted in a historically low success rate of 16.8%.

“It’s good news. It’s a really good start in terms of undoing the damage from sequestration,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Although there are no big surprises in the omnibus, a few provisions stand out. Within the total, $273 million would go to the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA). That amount would essentially restore sequester cuts to a program, which helps states with relatively little NIH funding, that the president wanted to trim by $50 million. The controversial National Children’s Study would receive $165 million, the presequester 2013 level and the same amount requested by the president.

The bill does not include the president’s request for an additional $40 million for the Cures Acceleration Network within NIH’s translational institute, instead restoring its budget only to the 2012 level of $10 million. The trans-NIH incubator program known as the Common Fund would receive $533 million, an $18 million increase compared with 2013.

The bill also contains an unspecified amount within several institutes for NIH’s share of the president’s BRAIN Initiative. (Obama wanted NIH to spend $40 million.) It does not tag $80 million for Alzheimer’s research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) as requested by the president. But it gives NIA a boost of $130 million in new funding, a generous 13% boost over 2013, and “expects that a significant portion” go to Alzheimer’s depending on the quality of proposals, according to a report accompanying the bill.

Lawmakers also order NIH to reopen a tiny science education office it had shuttered last fall and resume generating lesson plans for teachers and museums based on new medical research. Those activities were shut down last spring at the same time Obama proposed a major reorganization of federal science education programs. But Congress has rejected the plan and told NIH to resume its precollege education activities.

National Science Foundation

While Congress gave the agency all but $10 million of its $210 million request for major new facilities, it told NSF officials that projects already under construction should be first at the spending trough. That language is good news for the National Ecological Observatory Network, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the Daniel Inouye Solar Telescope, and an upgrade to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). But it leaves NSF’s only requested new start, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), with just $17 million of its $27 million request. However, lawmakers also gave NSF the green light to transfer funds to LSST.

Although the bill falls $405 million short of NSF’s $6.21 billion request for research, and $34 million shy of its $880 million request for education activities, Congress saw fit to fully fund the president’s request for two NSF activities—the international ocean drilling program and the Noyce scholars program to train science teachers. It also protected EPSCoR, a long-running program to build capacity in states that receive little NSF money now, specifying that it receive all but $5 million of its requested $15 million increase.

NASA

The space agency’s $17.6 billion overall budget is a $700 million boost over its 2013 appropriation. That includes $5.15 billion for science, a healthy $370 million over its 2013 level of $4.78 billion.

Within the $1.35 billion planetary sciences program, which received a 10% hike, Congress is asking NASA officials to carve out $80 million to develop plans for a mission to Jupiter’s Europa moon. Another $65 million is allocated for the development of the Mars 2020 rover. The space agency began preparing the groundwork for the proposed 2020 rover last year—the first new step toward exploring the Red Planet after NASA pulled out of a partnership with the European Space Agency to launch Mars missions in 2016 and 2018. The funding line that the bill makes available for developing the rover is evidence of Congress’s support for a 2020 mission.

The bill continues a mandate prohibiting NASA from spending more than $8 billion to build the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018. Lawmakers also retained language from previous spending bills that blocks NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any money on collaborations with China unless the Obama administration certifies that such interactions don’t pose a threat to national security. They also extend a ban on Chinese nationals visiting any NASA facility.

Congress also expressed its deep skepticism for the administration’s plans to find, lasso, and drag into Earth’s orbit a smallish asteroid. The proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is supposed to be an exercise for astronauts as well as a science mission. “The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the ARM prior to NASA and Congress making a long-term commitment to this mission concept,” the spending bill explains.

Department of Energy

Lawmakers showed their support for the domestic fusion science program at DOE. They rejected proposed cuts to several domestic facilities and provided $200 million for the goods and services that the U.S. is contributing  to ITER, an international fusion test reactor under construction in France. But it limits DOE's cash contribution to ITER's management organization to $22.8 million until the Secretary of Energy can certify that the organization is moving to adopt some management reforms recommended by an international panel. That certification would allow the U.S. to make its full planned contribution of $32 million for 2014.

With reporting from the Science News staff.

*Update, 15 January, 5:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify the bill's statements on the U.S. contribution to ITER.

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