A Good Week for Science

20 June 2008 (All day)

A third of a loaf is better than nothing. That's the feeling among the U.S. research community after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to boost the current budgets of four key science agencies by $337 million. Although it was less than lobbyists had hoped, it's probably more likely to happen than the sizeable budget increases for next year approved this week by several House and Senate spending panels with jurisdiction over a number of science agencies. Lobbyists fear those numbers, for the 2009 budget year that begins in October, could represent high-water marks in a process that likely will extend far beyond the November elections.

"This has been one of my better weeks," quipped Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), applauding what he called the lawmakers' "strong support for science." The House vote came on a supplemental spending bill to finance the Iraq War through the end of the current 2008 fiscal year. The bill (HR 2642) contains $62.5 million each for NSF, NASA, and the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science and $150 million more for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Meanwhile, the initial 2009 budget marks represent double-digit increases for NSF, NASA, and DOE science and match the Bush Administration's request for those agencies. NIH is out of the gate with a 4% raise--$1.2 billion more than the level funding called for by the president.

Science advocates have urged Congress for months to restore as much as possible of $1 billion in research funds for the physical sciences that were stripped at the last minute from the 2008 budget passed in December (Science, 4 January, p. 18) after the Bush Administration had demanded $22 billion in cuts. Last month, the Senate granted some of their wishes in its version of the war supplemental, inserting $200 million each for NSF and NASA and $100 million for DOE. It also added $400 million for NIH.

House Democrats faced more pressure from members than their Senate counterparts to curb overall non-war spending, however. As a result, the House bill provides much lower bump-ups for each research agency. But because House leaders struck a compromise with the Bush Administration on several contentious features of the bill, including jobless benefits and helping veterans go back to school, their version is thought to stand a much better chance of becoming law. The Senate will take up the bill next week, and Democratic leaders hope that a final version will be ready for the president to sign before the 4th of July.

Prospects for the 2009 budget are much murkier. Anticipating vetoes by President Bush, the Democratic leadership is not expected to push for passage of any 2009 spending bills until after the November elections. Instead, agencies may be held to current spending levels for several months into the 2009 fiscal year.

Here are some highlights of the 2008 supplemental and 2009 spending bills to date, by agency:

The $1.2 billion increase approved yesterday by the House Labor/HHS appropriations subcommittee would bring NIH's overall budget to $30.4 billion. That 4% boost would be the largest increase the agency has received since a 5-year doubling ended in 2003, said Representative David Obey (D-WI), who chairs both the panel and the full committee. The increase would pay for 1000 new grants, restoring the number roughly to levels from 2 years ago.

"This is wonderful news. We're very pleased and gratified," says Howard Garrison, public affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland. "This is a really important affirmation of the value of research." Although short of the 6.5% that FASEB had recommended, the boost would "ease a lot of pain" among investigators being squeezed by record-low success rates for winning an NIH grant, Garrison says.

The $150 million boost in the 2008 supplemental would ease the sting of a $1 billion increase that Bush vetoed last fall. The bill would divide the money proportionately among NIH's 27 institutes and centers to support "additional scientific research."

The $62 million in the supplemental would be used to help out science and aeronautics programs, which were cut to fix the shuttle system in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. Exactly how the money would be distributed remains unclear, however. At the same time, both House and Senate appropriations committees have added $200 million to the president's 2009 request for $17.6 billion.

In addition to voting on spending measures, this week the House approved a reauthorization of NASA programs that endorses a whopping $20.2 billion for NASA in 2009. That extra money would allow NASA to add a shuttle flight to carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an instrument that would measure the amount of antimatter in the universe. NASA kicked the instrument off the shuttle manifest last year in order to finish the space station and retire the shuttle by 2010, but lawmakers are loathe to cancel the international project. The White House strongly opposes the reauthorization, which is pending in the Senate.

The House demonstrated its strong support for education by funneling two-thirds of the supplemental funding into NSF's efforts to train more math and science teachers. In addition to doubling the current $10 million budget for the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program that serves undergraduates, the supplemental bill would give NSF $20 million to run a federal counterpart to the nonprofit Math for America program (MfA), which pays math-savvy college graduates to earn master's degrees and become math teachers in the public schools and also improves the skills of existing math teachers. That program, begun in 2004 in New York City with a $25 million grant from billionaire financial manager and mathematician James Simons, is currently working with 185 teachers.

The NSF funds would be spent on a national competition to create programs modeled on the MfA approach. The 2007 America COMPETES Act calls for such private-public partnerships, notes Lee Umphrey, an MfA spokesperson: "We always considered New York City to be a pilot for something that would spread across the country." Bement says that the teaching fellowships "would be a new program for us" but that he doesn't consider it to be a congressional earmark. NSF had been "considering some options" for expanding the Noyce program to serve a broader population, he says, and "this [money] will help us move things along."

The House and Senate marks for 2009 match the president's request for a 13% increase in NSF's overall $6 billion budget, to $6.85 billion. House appropriators shifted $48 million from NSF's $4.8 billion research account into its $725 million education directorate for Noyce and other activities. They also would add $20 million to a $113 million program to help 25 states compete better for NSF funding. (The additional $22.5 million for research in the supplemental would fund an additional 76 grants this year across several disciplines, NSF officials estimate.)

The biggest beneficiary of the $62.5 million supplemental would be Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, the nation's last dedicated particle physics lab. In December, Congress clipped the lab's budget from a requested $372 million to $320 million, $22 million less than it received in 2007. The lab is in the process of laying off 140 of its 1900 employees (ScienceNOW, 28 May), but the supplemental instructs DOE to "eliminate all furloughs and reductions in force which are a direct result of budgetary constraints." That could mean that 125 people who were laid off in April by the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, California, would also get their jobs back.

The big losers would be researchers working on the U.S. team for ITER, the gigantic fusion reactor to be built in Cadarache, France (Science, 13 June, p. 1405). In December, Congress zeroed out the U.S.'s $149 million contribution to ITER this year. The Senate version of the supplemental included $55 million for fusion research, but the House bill doesn't mention the discipline. It also forbids DOE to spend any of the 2008 money on research until it has restored all the job cuts, meaning that ITER would have to make do with whatever is left.

With regards to 2009, the House appropriations panel that oversees DOE has proposed $140 million more than the president's already hefty $750 million increase for DOE science. That would boost its budget to $4.86 billion. Although details are lacking, lawmakers appear to have endorsed, to the tune of $100 million per year, a DOE initiative called Energy Frontier Research Centers. The interdisciplinary centers would tackle challenges in basic energy research such as making better batteries, storing carbon underground, or creating new kinds of biological feedstocks. Institutions would receive up to $5 million a year over several years. With fighting escalating fuel costs a priority, lawmakers have also proposed more than $100 million in new funding for vehicle-technologies research and efforts to obtain fuels from biomass.

House appropriators would boost the $3.9 billion budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 8.5%. Their Senate counterparts would provide a 14.1% increase. Both spending panels support the president's proposal for $74 million to restore climate sensors for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (ScienceNOW, 19 June). But Kevin Wheeler of the advocacy group Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., is worried that the agency's research budget may get squeezed by continued cost overruns in the satellite program and problems facing its parent agency, the Commerce Department, in preparing for the 2010 census.

NIST In February, President Bush proposed slashing the $755 million budget of the National Institute of Standards and Technology by $117 million, targeting industrial and manufacturing research. But members of the House and Senate spending panels called for restoring those funds and adding $30 million and $54 million, respectively.

Other agencies:
The House bill would give the U.S. Geological Survey a 4.8% increase over its current budget, to $1.054 billion. "We are glad to see they're growing," says Linda Rowan of the American Geological Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. The Environmental Protection Agency would receive a slightly larger boost of 5.2% to $7.83 billion, and the science and technology account would rise by 4.3%, to $793 million. "I feel like [the committee] did the best they could with what they had," says Heather Taylor-Miesle of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture would enlarge its main pot of competitively awarded research funds, the National Research Initiative, by 5.8%, to $202 million. That's substantially less than the 35% increase requested by the president, however. Legislators were more generous with the so-called formula funds that go straight to land-grant universities. Programs funded under the Hatch Act, for example, would rise by 8.8% to $213 million.