This article is published in the September 2010 issue.

Congress Appears Bullish on NSF, NIST


DOE Science, Defense May Not Fare Quite as Well

Congress appears favorably inclined to approve significant increases to some key science agencies next fiscal year, based on early action by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Before the August recess both of the House and Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations subcommittees approved increases for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology that were at or just below the significant increases requested by President Obama in his FY 2011 budget request in February.

Also significant was House passage of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act that would authorize a continued path to doubling the budgets of NSF, NIST and DOE’s Office of Science over seven years—though the bill’s path to passage was not without some drama.

In all, the early action suggests that Congress remains supportive of investments in the “physical sciences”—which, in D.C. parlance, includes anything that is not a “life science”— despite growing concerns about federal spending, the increasing deficit, and an election season which has dramatically altered the political calculus in Washington.

In June, members of the House Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee “marked up” their version of the appropriations bill containing funding for NSF, NIST, NOAA, and NASA, and included an 8 percent increase for NSF in FY 2011 compared to the FY 2010 level—essentially matching the President’s requested budget for the agency. The appropriators did alter the President’s priorities slightly, however, reducing the agency’s request for its Research and Related Activities account by $58 million and increasing the agency’s Education and Human Resources request amount by $66 million. The committee mark puts R&RA at $5.96 billion in FY 2011, an increase of $343 million over FY 2010. EHR would see an increase of $86 million to $958 million in FY 2011.

The committee also approved an increase to NIST’s overall budget for FY 2011. Under the committee mark, NIST’s budget would increase to $883 million in FY 2011, up $26 million from $857 million in FY 2010. NASA’s Science budget would also see an increase in the committee mark to $4.7 billion in FY 2011, up $236 million from $4.5 billion in FY 2010.

The Senate Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee adopted very similar numbers for NSF as the House, a fact which may bode well as the appropriations process continues. The Senate committee approved an overall budget of $7.35 billion for NSF in FY 2011, an increase of $427 million above the FY 2010 level. The total includes $6 billion for research funding and $892 million for NSF’s EHR directorate. Also included in legislative report accompanying the Senate bill is language prohibiting NSF from following through on its proposed plan to merge three distinct initiatives aimed at broadening participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In its FY 2011 budget request, the agency had announced its intention to merge the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP), the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (T-CUP) into one “Broadening Participation” program. The committee language would prohibit this approach with the simple justification that “one size will not fit all.” It’s not clear whether this development will impact the NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate’s plans for its Broadening Participation in Computing program—a program that was just given plaudits in a report by the AAAS.1

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science did not fare as well as NSF and NIST during its first markup in the House Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee in July, however. House appropriators approved a budget of $4.9 billion for the office in FY 2011, essentially flat compared to FY 2010 and $221 million less than the President requested. Also funded in the bill is DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), which would receive $220 million in FY 2011, its first regular appropriation. (The agency was originally funded with $400 million in the FY 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.) There is some hope that the Senate numbers will be slightly higher, because the Senate appropriations committee has allocated more money to spend in the Senate version of the Energy and Water appropriations bill. But even with a higher allocation, there are other issues that may put science funding within the bill at risk.

Additionally, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may see big increases requested by the President trimmed by appropriators to fund other projects throughout DOD. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees approved Defense Authorizations for FY 2011 that would trim $140 million from increases requested for various research accounts at the agency, including increases requested for the Defense Research Sciences account and the agencies Cognitive Computing efforts. The reductions would still leave these accounts with increases in FY 2011 compared with FY 2010, but far below the level requested by the President. The authorizers defended the reductions by noting that DARPA has, in recent history, had difficulties executing its budget —that is, spending all its money—in a timely way, and that the committee had doubts that the agency could spend such a large increase within the fiscal year. More likely the authorizers used the reductions in the DARPA accounts to offset increases in other programs throughout the bill.

While it is not clear how the reductions to the DARPA request will play out in the appropriations process, staff on both the House and Senate appropriations committees have indicated they may be amenable to giving the DARPA Director full discretion in making the reductions—a move that would likely save the increases for the Defense Research Sciences and computing accounts. We will have more details on this at the Computing Research Policy Blog as the appropriations process moves forward.

In a move as important for its symbolism as it is for its policy impact, both the House and Senate have versions of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The COMPETES Act was originally passed in 2007 and marked the culmination of several years of effort to convince Congress and the Administration of the importance of increasing the federal investment in basic research in the physical sciences. The original 2007 Act authorized a doubling of NSF, NIST and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science over seven years, and provided authorizations for a number of programs aimed at increasing the participation of U.S. students in STEM fields. The 2007 Act authorizations expire this year, so both chambers are attempting to reauthorize the bill to keep those federal science agencies on a “doubling path.”

The reauthorization bills in each chamber have some significant differences, however. The House-passed bill contains five years of increasing budget authorizations versus the Senate bill’s three. The House bill also contains a number of new programs to help enable “industrial innovation” that the Senate bill doesn’t contain, along with two other formerly freestanding bills: the Networking and Information Technology R&D Act2 and the National Nanotechnology Initiative Act. The Senate bill is much leaner and also contains some additional cyber security R&D language taken from a much larger comprehensive cyber security bill introduced by Senators Rockefeller and Snowe (S. 773).

The House version of the bill has already received passage by the full House, though not without quite a bit of controversy. The Republican minority successfully derailed the initial consideration of the bill on the House floor by crafting a motion that both gutted the original bill and added language that would have prohibited federal agencies from paying the salaries of any federal employees who had been disciplined for having viewed pornography on their federal computers. A sufficient number of Democrats were fearful of being cast as “pro-pornography” should they oppose the motion and voted instead to adopt it. This set in motion two weeks of political maneuvering and parliamentary one-upmanship that threatened to derail the bill completely, but ultimately resulted in a party-line vote for passage.3

It is not clear how the differences in the two bills will get resolved in conference. It is also possible that Congress will run out of legislative days before adjourning to finish their negotiations on the bill.

It is also not clear how the appropriations process will finally resolve either, though it is very clear that the vast majority of bills will not be finished by November’s election. It is more likely that Congress will decide to put aside consideration of the bills until after the election, at which time it will consider them en masse as one giant omnibus bill. But whether that vote comes in November, December or next February under the new Congress is anybody’s guess at this time. Until then, federal agencies will operate under what is called a “continuing resolution”—essentially an order that keeps them funded at some specified rate, usually a continuation of the current fiscal year pace. This can have significant consequences for federal science agencies as it can delay or cancel new program starts and, in some cases, prevent them from hiring new personnel. In the case of an agency like ARPA-E, which has a special appropriation, it could shut the agency down until appropriations are resolved.

In any case, we will have all the latest information at the Computing Research Policy Blog (https://turing.cra.org/blog).

End Notes

1See “AAAS Report Finds NSF Alliance Initiative Boosts Computing Degrees; Minority Participation” at: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2010/0728computing.shtml

2You can read more about the NITRD Act at:  http://www.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/2010/05/competes-reauthorization-on-floor-today-cra-endorses-bill/

3For more on the derailment, see: http://www.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/2010/05/competes-gets-derailed-temporarily/

Congress Appears Bullish on NSF, NIST