A Senate spending panel today gave a hefty boost to U.S. researchers working in the physical sciences, space, and oceanography. As part of a $51 billion bill funding several federal agencies, the panel exceeded by $1 billion the Bush Administration's 2007 budget request for NASA and topped the president's proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by $750 million. The legislators also embraced the administration's opening move in a 10-year doubling of research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"This is a very good bill for university-based researchers," says Barry Toiv of the 62-member Association of American Universities. "We are very pleased by what the president and Congress have done so far this year." However, the fate of the bill, a sister version of which was passed last month by the House of Representatives (ScienceNOW, 14 June), is uncertain. Lobbyists expect this and other Senate appropriations measures to languish until after the November elections.
The biggest surprise came when the Senate appropriations committee approved $1 billion in emergency spending to partially reimburse NASA for the cost of returning the space shuttle to flight after the 2003 Columbia tragedy. The additional money, which would raise the agency's 2007 budget by 7% rather than the 1% ($162 million) requested by the president in February, is expected to be spread among the science, aeronautics, and exploration programs now starved for funding. "The agency was never fully reimbursed for either the loss of Columbia or [damage to its facilities from] Hurricane Katrina and was forced to make dramatic cuts to other programs," says Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who introduced the amendment along with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX). Opponents complained that the government couldn't afford to single out NASA during tight budget times.
The NSF increase, to a total of $6 billion in 2007, actually falls $19 million short of the requested $334 million boost to the agency's research activities that would start it on the doubling road. But legislators warned NSF officials not to trim anything from five programs within its $4.6 billion research portfolio--the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, polar research, the plant genome project, and international activities. At the same time, the spending panel more than doubled the administration's $20 million requested increase for the $800-million education directorate, doling out an extra $21 million to help have-not states become more competitive in obtaining NSF grants and three programs to help minorities pursuing scientific and engineering careers.
Before offering NASA some relief, legislators scolded agency officials for short-changing space and earth science missions and for neglecting research agencies outside the president's proposal for human exploration of the moon and Mars. They included $16 million more than requested for the Living with a Star program of solar research, and $15 million for earth science applications. They also chipped in an additional $35 million for aeronautics research and told NASA to halt its Centennial Challenges program because the tens of millions of dollars in scheduled prize money would be a drain on the rest of the agency's budget.
The Senate panel's bill would boost NOAA's overall budget by 18%, to $4.4 billion. That's far more generous than the House's action, which would cut the budget by 15% to $3.3 billion. The administration had requested $3.7 billion, a 6% cut from the 2006 level. The legislators ponied up for the start of the Integrated Ocean Observation System, an initiative recommended by the bipartisan Joint Ocean Commission to gather and integrate more data from buoys and other sources. They also recommend a 26% hike to $467 million for NOAA's oceanic and atmospheric research budget, whereas the House called for an 11% cut.
The panel's approval of a $764 million overall NIST budget "is great news," says David Peyton of the National Association of Manufacturers. At the same time, he and other business leaders called "regrettable" the panel's concurrence with the House to eliminate the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) that funds basic research by industry.
Despite the wealth of immediate good news, science lobbyists know that some of the gains may be short-lived. Speaking of the NOAA increases, Kevin Wheeler of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education notes that "it's hard to say whether the Senate will stick to its guns or whether it [and the House] will meet in the middle."