This article is published in the January 2015 issue.

Federal Budget Report and Congressional Outlook for 2015


Fiscal Year 2015 Budget End-of-Year Report

Congress decided to be more Kris Kringle than Scrooge with science research budgets in its end-of-the-year budget wrap-up, delivering some surprising, but mostly small, increases to science agencies’ efforts. It was particularly good, relatively speaking, for the computing fields. While certainly not great, it was much better than simply flat funding or, worse, budget cuts like those endured by many other programs within the funding bills. And it certainly starts 2015 on a good note.

With the Republican victory in the November elections behind them, the concern in Congress returned to consideration of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget in late November and early December. That consideration became clouded with the outcome of the Mid-term elections and concern about fallout from President Obama’s executive order on immigration enforcement. The concern was over whether the lame duck Congressional Republicans would block consideration of the FY15 budget at the end of the calendar year, punting it to early 2016 (and the fully Republican Congress), or take care of it in 2014 and “clear the decks” for the incoming Republican controlled Congress.

Fortunately, Congress learned its lesson from the 2013 Government Shut Down and did not play politics with the funding of government operations (though there were some notable attempts that failed). The week of December 8th, Congress moved forward with consideration of what was called a “CRomnibus.” As the name implies, this is a cross between a continuing resolution (or CR) and an omnibus funding bill. Of the 12 appropriation bills, 11 were rolled into an omnibus using negotiated funding levels between the House and Senate. Only Homeland Security failed to get a new appropriation. Instead, Homeland Security will operate under continuing resolution through the end of February, to give congressional Republicans an opportunity to look more closely at President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration. The way the budget was finally settled is noteworthy because this could be a sign of how future budgets will be handled over at least the next two years.

The bill is not awful for science research generally, considering this new budget environment (“flat is the new doubling!”), and decent for computing research specifically. The National Science Foundation will receive $172 million more in FY15 than FY14, not quite splitting the difference between the House and Senate numbers (the House was a 3.3 percent increase, or about $251 million over FY14; and the Senate was a 1.2 percent increase, or $83 million). The bill brings the agency’s total budget to $7.3 billion, an increase of about $89 million more than the President requested. From the additional funding the committee wants more work targeted at, “advanced manufacturing, and for research in cyber-security and cyber-infrastructure.” While not as big of a win as outgoing House CJS Appropriation Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) had hoped for the agency, the $172 million increase is still a big win given the flat or declining funding many other important programs received in the bill.

Additionally, neither the bill nor the accompanying explanatory statements (which essentially have the force of law) include any mention of or reduction to information diffusion research programs at NSF (such as Truthy, see below). In fact, there’s no special language implementing any of the burdensome elements of House Science Committee Chairman Smith’s FIRST Act. That’s a positive for all NSF funded scientists.

The Department of Defense (DOD) was more mixed. The 6.1 program, which handles basic research, will receive an increase of $112 million over FY14, coming in at $2.28 billion for FY15. However, the 6.2 program, which handles applied research, will see a reduction of $38 million from FY14 levels; total for FY15 would be $4.605 billion. The 6.3 program, which focuses on advanced technology development, would increase by $155 million over FY14 to $5.53 billion. DARPA will receive an increase of $136 million and finish out FY15 at $2.91 billion.

At the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, the budget will remain flat — it will receive the same funding as in FY14. Despite the flat funding for the office, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program will receive a $62 million increase, matching the agency request for FY15. In fact, ASCR and the Fusion Research program are the only two Office of Science programs called out for increases in the bill. Included in the ASCR funding is $91 million for exascale; $104 million for Oak Ridge LCF; $80 million for Argonne LCF; $75 million for NERSC; and $3 million for the Computational Sciences Graduate Fellowship program, a program that CRA joined with SIAM to urge Congress to continue. (And they have.) The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (or ARPA-E) would remain flat for FY2015.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology will receive a slight bump. NIST’s Science and Technical Research and Services (STRS) account, which contains much of research the agency performs, would increase to $675.5 million in FY15. Included in that is $15 million for the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, up to $60.7 million for cybersecurity R&D; $4 million for cybersecurity education; and $16.5 million for the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace.

To recap, a good number of pluses, with a few minuses, for science budgets generally, but a bunch of pluses for computing. Given the somewhat contentious environment on Capitol Hill that NSF is experiencing, their budget for 2015 is a victory. While it could always be better, any increases to federal budgets are getting more rare and, with no policy riders to their operations or mission, it could be significantly worse. The same is true for the other agencies: with flat funding considered “good” by federal agencies, any budget increases should be seen as “very good.”

Congressional Outlook for 2015

With the Fiscal Year 2015 budget settled, and a new calendar year ahead, the question becomes what will the new 114th Congress, which was sworn into office on Monday January 5th, look like and how will they operate? In the November 2014 Mid-term elections the Republican Party gained a 54 seat majority in the Senate, and were able to increase their majority in the House. How will a fully Republican Congress work together with a Democratic President? Probably badly.

The President will no longer have the buffer of a Democratic Senate to help blunt some of the attacks Republicans are sure to level at his priorities. How will this impact the operations of the government? Republicans will push more strictly Republican priorities through Congress, though the rules of the Senate still give the minority some influence in that process. Whether those priorities will get through the bottleneck of the Senate depends on some potential culture (http://www.rollcall.com/news/republicans_have_the_senate_now_what_happens_to_the_filibuster_commentary-238018-1.html) and procedural (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/21/republicans-senate-filibuster-reform_n_6194198.html) changes in the chamber, but it’s likely that at least some Republican legislation will be sent to the President’s desk. The President has only deployed his veto twice during his administration, but it’s likely to get more of a workout over the next two years.

One obvious concern for the computing community is whether there will be another government shutdown. While Republican leadership has insisted there won’t, there’s certainly a faction of the party that sees the shut down as a legitimate tool to make progress on policy goals. Whether there will be a shut down then comes down to whether the leadership can keep a tight grip on party unity in the wake of some big decisions — like another increase to the debt limit — in the coming months.

But assuming that the Republicans are able to stay united (maybe a big assumption), and put legislation on the President’s desk, how can they be sure he will sign it? There are two ways to do this. The first is to make the legislation bipartisan. This route is less likely, as the Republican’s mid-term mandate was built on being in opposition to the President. That leaves the second option, which is attaching veto-likely bills to must pass legislation, such as defense spending or something similar. The idea is to force the President to sign the legislation into law or risk taking all the political heat for vetoing it. That includes any potential shutdown if they can’t agree on a bill.

Additionally, any authorizing bills (aka: policy bills) that Congress passes will likely be very Republican in nature. For example, we can expect the FIRST Act (https://turing.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/2014/05/first-act-marked-up-sci-com/) to be reintroduced. However, we won’t know in what form it will be reintroduced; will it be exactly as it was when it passed the House floor this year, or will it be even more onerous in nature? And how will it fare in a Republican Senate? And if it does pass Congress, will the President expend political capital to veto it?

There are a large number of unknowns coming into the 2015 calendar year. Right now, the policy community of Washington is divided on the possibilities of another shutdown and how much, if at all, the Republicans will change the Senate. Only time will tell. As always, we will be monitoring Congress all year, so be sure to follow developments on the Policy Blog (cra.org/govaffairs/blog).

Truthy and Political Attacks on NSF Grant Process

As science policy watchers are aware, there have been a recent spate of attacks in political and media circles that target Federal science agencies and individual Federally funded grants. CRA and its affiliates in the computing community have been heavily involved in defending computing researchers from mischaracterizations of their work by the media and the GOP leadership (https://turing.cra.org/govaffairs/blog/2014/11/computing-community-weighs-in-on-truthy-controversy/), but there have been other concerns as well:

  • House Science Committee requests for detailed oversight of individual NSF grant review material
  • Attacks on wasteful spending at NIH/CDC in light of Ebola crisis
  • Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) final “Wastebook” report, citing frivolous spending in 5 NIH grants, 10 NSF grants, and 6 NASA grants.

All address the broader notion that taxpayer dollars are being wasted on frivolous research at the expense of other research that contributes to “real” issues of national concern. And as we’ve already seen, it’s likely the scrutiny will only increase with the Senate now in GOP hands.

CRA has joined with a broad coalition of science and professional societies with the goal of developing ideas for contending with the near- and long-term challenges posed by these attacks, and figuring out ways to bring the broader community together to develop a more comprehensive strategy. Of all the issues we’re working right now, this one strikes deepest at the public’s faith in the credibility of the scientific enterprise. CRA and our allies in the computing community have already weighed in — and will continue to weigh in — in defense of science. You’ll be hearing more from us and our partners throughout the scientific community on this issue in the coming months.


 

DEADLINE EXTENDED: Applications to 2015 LiSPI now accepted until January 23rd

Due to extra availability we are extending the deadline for nominations and applications to the 2015 Leadership in Science Policy Institute workshop (LiSPI) to January 23rd. We have also pushed back notifying selectees to February 2nd. If you know of someone who meets the qualifications and you would like to nominate them, or if you were nominated but missed the deadline to get in your application, now is your chance.

For some more background, check out the LiSPI webpage and the original post on this year’s workshop.