This article is published in the September 2008 issue.

Science Funding Again Headed for Uncertain Wrap-Up


Despite what appear to be generous funding levels for FY 2009 approved by congressional appropriators for federal science agencies, most in the science advocacy community are bracing for another year in which science funding falls victim to bigger political concerns.

Both the House and Senate appropriations committees have approved measures that would put the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE Sci) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) back on a funding trajectory that would double their budgets over the next seven years. However, continuing tensions between the White House, the Democratic Congressional leadership, and fiscally conservative factions of both parties threaten to once again derail the annual appropriations process necessary for funding federal programs.

The tensions result from differing priorities among the players for the annual appropriations bills and the firm opposition by the White House and its allies in Congress to any significant increase in federal discretionary spending beyond those called for in the President’s FY 2009 budget request. The President announced early in the FY 2009 budget process that any increase in discretionary spending not requested in his budget will likely earn his veto, and it appears he has the support in Congress to sustain the threat.

As a result, it appears that the congressional leadership will not give the President the opportunity to veto the bills and score the political points that might come from taking a hard line on increased government spending. The Democratic leadership plans to pass what is known as a “Continuing Resolution” before the start of FY 2009 on October 1, 2008, that would likely fund all federal agencies at their FY 2008 spending levels until such time as the Congress passes the FY 2009 appropriations bills. With a continuing resolution in place, Congress could delay consideration of the FY 2009 appropriations bills until after the November 2008 presidential election—perhaps waiting until a more cooperative Administration (in their view) is in place in the White House in early 2009.

Such a move could prove seriously detrimental to federal science agencies, which have spent FY 2008 trying to manage personnel and programs that were either held flat or cut as a result of the equally dysfunctional FY 2008 appropriations process.1 A long-term continuing resolution for FY 2009 would likely result in layoffs of researchers and cuts to research programs at the Department of Energy and NIST, and a significant reduction in the number of grants and graduate fellowships planned by the National Science Foundation.

Members of the science advocacy community—including CRA—plan an aggressive effort to mitigate the impact of a long-term continuing resolution on federal science agencies by asking that Congress include an exception for those agencies in the bill that would fund them not at the FY 2008 level, but at the levels approved for FY 2009 by the House and Senate appropriations committees. Though the full House and Senate have yet to vote on the measures, the appropriations committees in both chambers have “marked up” and passed FY 2009 appropriations bills for Commerce, Science and Justice that include significant increases in funding for NIST and NSF (up 14 percent), and for Energy and Water that include generous increases for DOE Science (16 percent).

This strategy of asking for a “science exemption” in the continuing resolution, while considered a long shot by most in the community, was used somewhat successfully during the FY 2007 appropriations process.2  The difficulty with getting a special exemption lies with the congressional leadership’s reluctance to open up the continuing resolution to these sorts of special interest exemptions. The number of special interest communities who would seek an exemption if they were available is large, and increasing funding for science is not generally seen as a way to significantly increase political support among the typical Member’s constituency.

However, a similar test of the science community’s ability to earn special treatment in funding did provide a small victory for the community during consideration of the FY 2008 Supplemental Appropriations bill. The “supplemental” is a vehicle used to fund the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are not funded as part of the normal appropriations process. The bill provides an opportunity for congressional policymakers to add additional “emergency” funding for other expenses unrelated to war. This year, despite an extremely competitive and contentious atmosphere around the supplemental,3the science community was able to score a somewhat symbolic victory by convincing Congress to add $400 million in funding for science. The victory feels “symbolic” because the $400 million fell well short of the more than $1 billion increase in science funding approved by Congress for FY 2008 but not appropriated in the final omnibus. Out of that $400 million, DOE Science and NSF receive just $62.5 million each, and out of that $62.5 million, NSF’s research account will see an addition of only $17.5 million for FY 2008.

Beyond the continuing resolution fight, members of the science advocacy community are also doing their best to prepare for a post-Bush White House. It appears likely that the Democrats will retain their control of Congress—the only question will be the size of their majority after the November elections. But a change in the Administration could mean a dramatic change in the environment for funding in the coming years. In the simplest analysis, a victory by presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama would represent the most significant departure from the status quo in Washington.

A Democratic majority in Congress would no longer be fighting for its priorities against a Republican president who enjoys just enough support in Congress to frustrate most Democratic efforts. Obama’s platform includes many of the funding recommendations found in both the America COMPETES Act and the influential National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report that motivated the COMPETES Act, such as calling for the doubling of the research budgets of NSF, NIST and DOE Science over the next seven years. His campaign has also been reaching out fairly actively to the academic community for guidance in innovation and research policy.

The impact of a victory by presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is a little more difficult to judge. While Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, McCain left most of the science-related work to his subcommittee chairs. He was not a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the COMPETES Act (S. 761), though 69 of his Republican and Democratic colleagues were. His platform is also somewhat silent on science funding, his innovation platform only expressing support for the Research and Development Tax Credit and increasing the H-1B Visa cap. But he is closely advised by one of the biggest champions for science funding and innovation policies in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who has been accompanying him on the stump throughout his campaign. It would appear, however, that a victory by McCain might more closely resemble the status quo than an Obama victory.

In either case, a change in Administration creates a new opportunity to make the case for science to a whole new set of policymakers (or, at least, a set of policymakers in new positions), and CRA, along with the rest of the science community in Washington, will be there telling our story.

For all the latest details on the FY 2009 appropriations process and science advocacy efforts, check the Computing Research Policy Blog at https://turing.cra.org/blog.

Notes:

1  See “Science Increases Abandoned in Final 08 Spending Bill,” Computing Research News, Vol. 20/No. 2.
2  See “Congress Protects Science Funding in Final Appropriations,” Computing Research News, Vol. 19/No. 2.
3  For more, see “Science Community Seeks Supplemental Funding for FY08,” Computing Research News, Vol. 20/No. 3.

Science Funding Again Headed for Uncertain Wrap-Up