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Computing Research News

September 2011     Vol. 23/No. 4

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House Appropriators Approve Small Bump to NSF Research in FY12

Congress Passes Debt Deal that Could Cripple Science in FY13

By Peter Harsha

While Congress worked to pass a last-minute debt-limit deal that could spell deep cuts for federal science agencies in FY13, members of the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation in mid-July that would provide a slight increase in research funding at the National Science Foundation in FY12, but cuts to education efforts at the Foundation and other science agencies within the bill.  

Members of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee were under a mandate to trim $3 billion from what was a $53 billion bill in FY11. Under this $50 billion cap, the committee had to fund FY12 operations for NSF, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in addition to other programs at the Department of Commerce, Department of Justice and the Census. The committee found cuts in nearly every program in the bill, but did single out NSF’s Research and Related Activities account for a $43 million increase.

The committee indicated in the report accompanying the legislation that it provided the increase at NSF despite the heavy cuts elsewhere in the bill because it believed “healthy levels of investment in scientific research are the key to long-term economic growth that exceeds population growth.” Within that increase, the committee indicated it expects NSF to prioritize research on cybersecurity, cyber infrastructure, and advanced manufacturing in FY12, and to place an emphasis in neuroscience as well.

Despite the increase, cuts to NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate (-$26 million compared to FY11) and Major Research Equipment and Facilities account (-$17 million vs. FY11) meant the agency overall received flat funding in the appropriations bill. The committee’s approved level falls short by $907 million of the President’s requested level for the agency in FY12.

House appropriators also provided a small increase in research funding for NIST’s core research programs. NIST’s Scientific and Technology Research and Services (STRS) account would see an increase of $30 million in FY12 to $479 million, an increase of about 6.8 percent over FY11 funding. STRS funding still falls well below the President’s requested level of $629 million for FY12.

NASA and NOAA both suffered big cuts in the House appropriators’ bill. NASA would see agency funding cut by $1.4 billion in FY12, a decrease of 14.3 percent. NASA’s Science account was not protected by appropriators, absorbing a $283 million (8.3 percent) reduction to $2.96 billion in FY12. NOAA’s research account suffered a similar cut in the bill, down $56 million (8.7 percent) to $584 million in FY12.

Appropriators on the House Energy and Water Subcommittee were equally parsimonious with the Department of Energy’s Office of Science budget in FY12. That committee approved a bill in June that would fund the office at $4.4 billion in FY12, a reduction of $47 million or 1.1 percent compared to FY11. That level fell $562 million (or 11.4 percent) short of the President’s requested level of $4.94 billion for FY12. The full House approved those levels in July.

Despite the disappointing funding levels for federal investments in science, members of the Appropriations Committee claim to remain fully committed to federal support for research and development. In the report accompanying the CJS bill, the committee lists “American innovation and competitiveness” among a very short list of “areas of highest priority.” They note that “[t]hese investments lead to innovation and improve the competitiveness of American businesses, leading, in turn, to positive impacts on the quality of life for all Americans.”

Both the Commerce, Justice, Science and the Energy and Water bills move to the Senate where the Senate intends to pass its own versions under slightly higher budgetary caps. Differences between the bills would normally have to be worked out in conference in the fall, before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. However, Congress has been unable to reach resolution of the appropriations process under that so-called “regular order” in recent memory, and the chances of that occurring this year are generally assumed to be remote. It is more likely that the House and Senate will fail to reconcile on the bills individually and will be forced to consider most or all of the 12 annual appropriations bills necessary to fund the functions of government in one giant omnibus bill at year’s end. 

As occurred with the FY11 appropriations, final passage of the must-pass FY12 appropriations bills will likely be another opportunity for leaders of both parties to wrangle for budgetary concessions, much as they did during the debt-limit debate (another piece of “must-pass” legislation). This could push the final resolution of the bills well into December, January or even later.

´┐╝FY 12 Congressional Action at Selected Federal Science Agencies

At about the same time, federal science agencies should have a better sense of their future funding prospects as a result of the deal reached on August 2 to end the federal debt limit crisis. Under the debt-limit deal, the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate is to appoint a group of six Democrats and six Republicans to a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, charged with finding ways of raising revenues or reducing the costs of entitlement programs. If the committee fails to come up with recommendations, or the House and Senate fail to pass them in an up-or-down vote, then a series of automatic triggers would activate, imposing two tranches of cuts across the board to discretionary spending.

Of the two cuts, the second is the most worrisome to the science advocacy community. The first would call for a $917 billion across-the-board cut to discretionary spending over the next 10 years. Much of that cut would come from reductions to defense spending, and it is heavily loaded into FY14 and beyond. The second, more troublesome cut is a required $1.2 trillion reduction effective in FY13. Members of the Joint Committee will be responsible for deciding how to spread that reduction around to the various agencies. While there are no hard-and-fast estimates of its potential impact on federal science agencies, analysis from within and outside the science community suggests that agencies like NSF and DOE would likely endure cuts of anywhere from 7 to 11 percent in their FY13 budgets should the automatic cuts trigger.

But it is unclear whether those automatic triggers will be activated. As this goes to press, members of the Joint Committee have not yet been named. There is a chance that members of the committee will come up with ways of increasing federal revenues and changing federal entitlement programs that enjoy enough support in Congress to avert the automatic triggers. But that is hard to imagine given the current levels of polarization in both chambers.

In fact, a recent study of the current makeup of Congress by National Journal determined that the current Congress is the most polarized the body has been in 30 years. The study found that there are currently no Republican members of the Senate more liberal than any Democrat in the chamber, and no Democratic Senator more conservative than any Republican. Maybe more remarkably, in the House, there are only five GOP Representatives more liberal than any Democratic member in the House. And of the 98 “middle of the road” Democrats who faced election in November 2010, 55 lost their seats.

Whether science agencies can find support in this tough fiscal environment is an open question—a question made more difficult to answer  by the complete lack of a “middle” in Congress. But the timeline is becoming clearer. The Joint Committee is required to have its recommendations for saving the $1.2 trillion by November 23, 2011, and Congress is required to vote on the recommendations by December 23, 2011. If the recommendations are not accepted—and if Congress doesn’t decide to change the rules to this process—the cuts to agencies begin January 2, 2013.

Check with the Computing Research Policy Blog (http://cra.org/blog) for all the latest as these dates approach. 

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