U.S. science agencies will receive no budget increases until March 2009 at the earliest after Congress voted over the weekend to freeze spending for every federal program outside of national security and veterans affairs. For many agencies, that means a second year of little or no growth.
The stopgap legislation, known as a continuing resolution (CR), averts a shutdown of the government. The 2009 fiscal year starts on Wednesday, but Congress has not finished its spending bills. That lag was intentional--Democratic leaders decided this summer to wait until after the 4 November election rather than run the risk of having the bills vetoed by outgoing President George W. Bush. The only 2009 spending bills that were approved cover the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs; those bills were folded into the CR.
Nevertheless, the legislation is still a sharp disappointment to science advocates in light of healthy increases that congressional committees had approved earlier in the year for several agencies, notably double-digit hikes for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science (ScienceNOW, June 20). Advocates fear that the continuing resolution, which holds agencies to current spending levels through 6 March, might be extended for the rest of the fiscal year by a new president looking for ways to bail out a flagging economy, finance the Iraq war, and reduce the federal deficit. "I think the next Administration will be very leery of more spending given the current state of the economy," speculates Samuel Rankin III, a lobbyist for the American Mathematical Society and head of the Coalition for National Science Funding.
For some science agencies, the CR actually puts them below the amounts spent this year. That's because the legislators excluded the $400 million divvied up among NSF, DOE, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under a supplemental 2008 spending bill passed in June (Science, 27 June, p. 1706).
Here is a look at how the legislation (HR 2638), now awaiting the president's signature, affects some key science agencies:
Basic science comes out a winner at the Department of Defense, which along with the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs were the only agencies to receive individual 2009 budgets. The legislation appropriates $1.84 billion for basic research, an increase of $208 million, or 12.7% over the 2008 figure. "This seems to be the largest single-year increase to that budget line in history," says Matt Owens of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 research-intensive universities.
The increase suggests that Congress is responding to a push from within the Pentagon to grow the basic research budget to more than $2 billion by 2011. "It was a personal initiative of Secretary [Robert] Gates, and we are really grateful to Congress for this support," says William Rees, deputy under secretary for labs and basic sciences. He says an initial reading of the CR also suggests that there are fewer earmarks than the approximately $200 million contained in last year's appropriations bill. "Our desire is to have all of the basic research funding go to merit-based projects," he says.
Thanks in part to a last-minute push from Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to his congressional colleagues, NASA won't have to abandon the space station in 2010. Tucked into the continuing resolution is approval for NASA to buy seats through 2016 aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which ferries passengers to and from the station.
The U.S. government slapped sanctions on Russia for alleged sales of nuclear material to Iran, which prohibited NASA from using any tax dollars to finance any deals with the Russian space industry. A waiver that allowed the space agency to carry out such spending was set to expire in 2011. Soyuz needs to be booked well in advance, however, and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had warned that the failure to extend the waiver this year would leave Americans without a way to get into space if the shuttle, as planned, is taken out of service in 2010. Senator Obama sent a letter shortly before the vote to key Democratic leaders, urging them to grant the extension.
Last week, Congress also passed legislation that prohibits NASA from making any moves between now and 30 April 2009 that would keep the shuttle from flying past 2010. The Bush Administration plans to shut down the program in order to divert money to a new launcher, but both presidential candidates have expressed concern about that move, because it would limit access to the space station by U.S. astronauts.
The provision, in a bill (HR 6063) that reauthorizes NASA's programs, gives the new president latitude in whether to keep the shuttle operating. But Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who chairs the House Science and Technology Committee, says that Congress is not endorsing an extension or an additional flight to launch a scientific payload called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. "Rather, it reflects our common belief that the decision of whether or not to extend the shuttle past its planned 2010 retirement date should be left to the next president and Congress."
With the exclusion of the $150 million bump this year in a supplemental spending bill, NIH officials are facing a budget of $29.2 billion, 1% more than the agency received in 2007.
In the past, NIH has responded to continuing resolutions by giving investigators with ongoing grants only 80% of the approved amount for the duration of the CR. But this year's freeze applies to half the fiscal year, much longer than previous CRs. In addition, when the first round of next year's grant applications are reviewed in December, NIH will likely award fewer than it normally would because of the uncertainly about how much of a raise it will eventually get in 2009. (The House and Senate spending panels had approved roughly 2% to 3%.)
The need to be cautious will increase pressure on study sections trying to choose between equally meritorious competing grants applications and on young investigators, says Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "The acting director is going to have to deal with all the old problems and no additional resources," he says.
Research related to climate change is taking the biggest hit from the freeze on the agency's budget. In particular, programs supporting activities in the polar regions (Science, 29 August, p. 1142) and cruises throughout the world are feeling the cumulative effect of rising fuel prices and operating costs butting up against a flat budget.
The U.S. academic research fleet is projecting a 15% to 20% drop next year from its current $100 million-plus federal operating budget provided by NSF, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says Marcia McNutt, chair of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratories System (UNOLS). "We've had some bad times, but this is the worst situation that I've ever seen," says McNutt, who is also president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
To close that gap, UNOLS may need to take one of the system's 23 vessels out of service for the entire year. "That's a more efficient use of resources than trying to operate several ships on partial schedules," says McNutt, who notes that institutions have managed to hold costs almost flat despite the rising price of fuels and materials. The UNOLS Council hopes to make a decision by the end of October, she says.
NSF may save some money from the continued delay in completing renovations to NSF's ocean drilling vessel, the JOIDES Resolution. The latest projections call for delivering the upgraded ship in March 2009, says Rodey Batiza, head of NSF's marine geosciences section. That time frame knocks out two cruises scheduled for the fall and the winter of 2009. Although Batiza hopes they can be rescheduled next year, he says the delay temporarily frees up $5 million to $6 million in the cost of fuel and doing science.
The freeze also means a rollercoaster ride for the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which received an additional $40 million in this year's supplemental appropriation. That money allowed NSF to more than double, from 20 to 44, the number of universities that received grants this year to help train math and science teachers, as well as pay $10,000 stipends to scientists returning to school to become teachers and experienced teachers seeking additional training. But the CR sets the program's budget at the earlier level of $15 million, too little money to allow NSF to sustain those efforts in the next round of competition.
Scientists in the Department Of Energy say the $62.5 million they received in July will tide them over for several months. "We are not in a crisis--until March," says J. Murray Gibson, director of the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The additional $7 million has kept APS running despite a 20% increase in costs, including electrical power, inflation, and mounting repair bills for the 11-year-old machine. But Gibson says he may need to lay off up to 60 people if Congress doesn't go along eventually with DOE's requested increase for the lab in 2009. The Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, avoided as many as 200 layoffs thanks to its $29.5 million bump in the 2008 supplemental, and lab spokesperson Judith Jackson declined to speculate on what might happen in March without additional funds. But she allows that the scenario would be "very serious."
Oak Ridge National Laboratory director Thom Mason says the flat budget keeps his lab at a "survival level" until next March. The biggest question mark is ITER, an international fusion reactor experiment being built in France. This year, the United States is contributing only $26 million of a promised $160 million, a shortfall that has forced Oak Ridge to delay awarding contracts for U.S. contractors to build parts for the experiment's cooling system, diagnostic system, and solenoid. And a continued freeze would exacerbate the situation. "Not having U.S. industry involved at an early stage could limit their contributions in the future," says Mason, who says that the shortfall also prevents the lab from locking in prices for commodities such as stainless steel that are expected to rise. The funding doldrums is also slowing the scaling-up of the lab's 2-year-old Spallation Neutron Source to meet its targeted operating level of 1.4 megawatts. "It makes experiments more difficult as well as more lengthy," he says.