Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a belated 2007 spending bill that treats research much more favorably than science advocates had dared hoped--and avoids budget cuts that many had feared. While freezing spending across most of the federal government, the legislation gives a shot in the arm to research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gets a small increase rather than a cut, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) budget holds steady in the face of a threatened reduction. The legislation may even offer some relief to NASA's beleaguered space science budget. And while science advocates say it's premature to declare "mission accomplished"--the bill next goes to the Senate--they are extremely gratified that legislators have embraced their arguments about the importance of basic research to the nation's economy.
"I think it's a very good sign that they will be supportive of competitiveness and innovation," says Pier Oddone, director of DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, which may have dodged a budget-induced work slowdown. "I understand that they can't do everything we would like to do [this year], but I am appreciative of the support they have shown so far."
U.S. agencies are supposed to receive their annual budgets each fall for the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 October. But this year, the Republican Congress failed to pass 2007 spending bills for any agency except the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, legislators adjourned last month after agreeing to hold agencies to 2006 spending levels in a continuing resolution that expires 15 February. Last month, the new Democratic majority in Congress said it planned to extend that rule for the remaining 8 months of FY2007, with minimal adjustments to deal with pressing problems caused by a year-long budget freeze.
That's when the scientific community went to work. Professional and academic organizations joined other science advocates in pushing for research spending to be considered a national priority. They urged legislators to support a 2007 budget proposal by President George W. Bush, called the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) (ScienceNOW, 26 September 2006:), that called for a nearly $1 billion increase in the research budgets at NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and NIST in 2007 as part of a 10-year doubling, and to find additional money for NIH, which was scheduled for a 1% reduction.
Yesterday, their efforts were rewarded. House Joint Resolution 20, which will be taken up tomorrow by the full House, gives NSF a $334 million increase in its $4.3 billion research account, the full 7.7% boost requested under ACI. DOE's $3.6 billion Office of Science would increase by only $200 million rather than the $505 million requested. But the legislation wipes out some $130 million in congressional earmarks in 2006 and gives office head Raymond Orbach the right to add that amount to DOE research programs. Likewise, NIST research would grow by $60 million (the administration requested a $104 million jump) because the legislation frees up $137 million in earmarks.
Funding for biomedical research, which has been flat for several years, may now begin to grow. The House proposal would give NIH a 2% increase this year, adding $620 million to the current budget of $28.6 billion. The austerity since 2003 has taken a toll, NIH officials say, as inflation significantly eroded NIH's buying power and reduced the number of new and competing grant awards from 10,300 to fewer than 9100. The House bill allows NIH officials to determine how most of the increase will be spent, with one glaring exception: $69 million has been earmarked for a controversial National Children's Study (Science, 16 June 2006, p. 1585). In addition, legislators set aside $483 million for the "common fund," to be spent on special initiatives under the NIH director's purview.
The biomedical research lobby was delighted. The proposed NIH increase is "heroic, given the circumstances" said Patrick White, director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities. "We are very pleased," said Jon Retzlaff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "It is a victory for biomedical research and gives us real momentum going into the 2008 budget process."
Under the terms of the continuing resolution, most agencies will see their budgets held to 2006 levels. That's good news for some science agencies, however. NOAA avoids a $221 million reduction in its $3.8 billion budget that it would have suffered under the president's 2007 request, and an even larger cut approved last summer by the House. Likewise for the $970 million budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, which went under the president's knife. NASA's science budget would drop $200 million, to $5.25 billion, in line with the Administration's desire to hold the line on science spending to cover increasing human space flight costs. But the legislation also frees up $300 million in emergency funds from last year's budget, giving Administrator Mike Griffin some flexibility to fund efforts such as the shuttle replacement or the upcoming mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
For DOE national labs, the 2007 increases mean a reprieve from 2006 budgets that left them unable to make full use of unique facilities used by thousands of scientists. Although DOE officials must still allocate the increase across their research empire, the heads of individual labs are looking forward to a more productive year. "If we get a consistent piece of the increase, then I think we can have a short run at RHIC [Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider], keep the NSLS-II [National Synchrotron Light Source] moving forward but not at the pace we would like, and avoid staff cuts," says Samuel Aronson, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Adds Fermilab's Oddone, "my hope is that, since the Office of Science got some help, we will be able to avoid" a planned month-long furlough of the lab.
Although support for the research bump-ups came from both sides of the aisle, the new chair of the House Science Committee, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), credited "the Democratic leadership" for pulling off the feat despite "a very tough budget predicament." The Senate is expected to take up the spending bill next week, and both houses have promised to resolve any differences before the current CR expires. On Monday, the president will submit his 2008 budget to Congress--and the cycle will start all over again.