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4 questions about the new U.S. budget deal and science

Science research could get a boost, but it’s too early to tell who benefits — and who doesn’t

U.S. Capitol

EARLY TO RISE  U.S. lawmakers passed a bipartisan budget deal before dawn. The measure could boost federal spending for science research, but tough decisions about how to divvy it up are still to come.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated February 9 to note President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

A two-year spending package, passed by Congress in the wee hours of February 9 and signed into law by President Trump hours later, could add to the coffers of U.S. science agencies.

The bipartisan deal raises the caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending by nearly $300 billion overall. Nondefense discretionary spending gets a $63 billion boost in fiscal year 2018, and another $68 billion in FY 2019 (the spending year that starts October 1, 2018).  Here’s why that could be good for science: Almost all research agencies, including NASA, EPA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, fall under this nondefense category. (Defense agencies also do a chunk of scientific research.) But there is a big but. It’s still unclear how any funds will be divvied up among individual agencies and programs. (Early word is that NIH is in line for a $2 billion increase over the two years.)

Still, the real details of who gets what in the 2018 budget — including what science will get federal funding support — will come as Congress works on an omnibus appropriations bill, expected in late March.

Budget boost

The new spending package raises caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending (in $ billions) over two years. The deal translates to a large year-over-year spending increase in fiscal year 2018, with a more modest increase in 2019.

Discretionary spending caps, 2017-2019

 DefenseNondefenseTotal
FY 2017 Caps$551$519$1,070
FY 2018 Caps$629$579$1,208
Annual change14.1%11.7%12.9%
FY 2019 Caps$647$597$1,244
Annual change2.9%3.1%3.0%
M. Hourihan and D. Parkes/AAAS 2018

Trump’s FY 2019 budget proposal, released February 12, includes a last-minute addendum that would keep science spending roughly at 2017 levels for some major research agencies, including NIH, NSF and the Department of Energy Office of Science. But a number of federal research programs and projects remain in Trump’s cross hairs, including five of NASA’s Earth science missions and various research, including on climate or environmental science, at the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether Congress will go along with Trump’s request for the 2019 budget remains to be seen.

Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., spoke with Science News February 9 about the prospects for funding for science research. His answers were edited for clarity. 

SN: What does the spending deal mean for science research and technology funding?

M.H.: Generally, research and development funding tends to track the discretionary budget pretty closely, though individual agencies may fare a little better or worse in any given year. But most likely we're looking at a larger increase this year, and then a far more moderate increase next year. Within that context, agencies will fare better or worse based on their current popularity. 

SN: Are there any obvious winners or losers?

M.H.: We won't really know that until the omnibus deal is released. All we have is an overall framework, but spending levels for individual agencies and programs will need to be negotiated and the details released. I would certainly expect more winners than losers, given how large a spending increase we're talking about. The deal apparently includes some extra funding for NIH, though again we'll see how the details look.

SN: Could the extra money still be cut?

M.H.: Whatever Congress does, they can, of course, undo. But if they lower the cap next year after raising it, it would be the first time. The downside is, this does add quite a bit to the deficit. With this deal plus the recent tax reform, we're looking at a potential return to trillion-dollar deficits next year. When deficits get bigger, Congress gets more interested in restraining spending, and trillion-dollar deficits are what got us here in the first place. It's a catch-22.

SN: How will Trump’s FY 2019 budget proposal impact how the money is divvied up?

M.H.: Last year's budget proposed big cuts to nondefense spending, and now Congress has gone in the complete opposite direction. We'll see what the administration does … but if they go for a repeat performance, we could be looking at a pretty irrelevant [Trump] budget.

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