The National Science Foundation (NSF) has escaped the worst ravages of the mandatory spending cuts, known as sequestration, that went into effect on 1 March across the federal government. And based on preliminary action in Congress, NSF's hot streak could continue into 2014.
According to a final spending plan recently posted by the agency , NSF's budget for the current fiscal year ending on 30 September is $149 million lower than in 2012. But that drop of 2.1%, to $6.884 billion, is less than half the 5% decline for the entire civilian government triggered by the sequestration mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act. That 5% cut is a fact of life for most other research agencies, including the $30 billion National Institutes of Health.
In contrast, two NSF components have seen their budgets actually increase in 2013. The education directorate received $3 million more in 2013 than in 2012, for a total of $833 million. And the budget for what NSF calls "integrative activities" rose from $398 million in 2012 to $433 million this year, a 9% increase. Most of that is due to a boost in NSF's graduate research fellowship program and a new class of science and technology centers, offset by a drop in grants for large instrumentation.
Tomorrow, a congressional spending panel will give NSF officials some initial good news about its 2014 budget . The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives will propose giving NSF $111 million more in 2014 than it received in 2013—despite having nearly $3.5 billion less to spread across the dozens of agencies that it oversees. To be sure, its total recommendation of $6.995 billion for NSF is $631 million below what the agency had requested. But in a time of fiscal austerity, few took seriously the administration's proposed 8.4% increase for NSF. So a 1.6% boost when most agencies are being cut is a strong signal that Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the subcommittee, likes what NSF is doing.
The even better news for NSF is that the House spending level is expected to be the worst-case scenario in the 2014 budget cycle. The Senate has given itself $91 billion more to spend across the entire federal government than the House—$1.057 trillion compared with $968 billion. That means that each of its 12 subcommittees can be more generous. The counterpart to Wolf's panel has not yet met to lay out its plans for 2014. But it's a safe bet that its chair, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), will come closer to the president's request for NSF than Wolf has done.
To be sure, a final agreement on the 2014 budget is still months away. The House and Senate must first agree on the bottom line before deciding how to carve up the pie. Those negotiations have not yet begun. In the meantime, however, NSF seems to be living a charmed life.