Congress Moves in Divergent But Similar Directions on Science Funding

Some events highlight the political silliness often infecting Washington better than others. The current fight over the supplemental war funding bill for this fiscal year is one of those occasions. The Washington Times aptly summed up the silliness when it ran the line: “House Passes War Supplemental Without War Funding.” The issue at hand is the high-stakes budget fight between Congress and the President on providing supplemental funding this year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, once again, research funding is caught somewhere in the middle.

Last year Congress flat funded several key physical science agencies in fiscal year 2008 (FY08) — namely the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy Office of Science. The repercussions were almost immediately felt, as the DOE labs laid off workers, NSF cancelled plans for more than a thousand grants and NIST shelved several important research programs. To address this problem, the scientific, business and university communities and some in Congress focused on restoring the cuts in two ways: 1) a short-term fix with the “supplemental” funding bill for FY08, and 2) seeking additional increases as part of the regular funding bills for FY09 to make up for the FY08 shortfall.

The House and the Senate took different paths on the supplemental that both lead to the same conclusion. The House bill sought to fund the war efforts and two domestic programs, but included no funding for the research agencies. The Senate sought to fund the war effort and many domestic initiatives including the following funding for research agencies:

  • $200 million for the National Science Foundation ($150 million for Research and $50 million for Education and Human Resources)
  • $100 million for DOE Office of Science
  • $200 million for Return to Flight Activities for NASA
  • $400 million for the National Institutes of Health

Both the House and Senate have passed their proposals, but the President has threatened to veto both, stating that they exceed funding caps he supports and contain policy measures on the war he opposes. While the House and Senate work to reconcile how science funding will fare, the end result is already known — a Presidential veto.

After the veto, Congress and the President could work out a compromise that might include science funding, but with both sides spoiling for a budget fight, it isn’t clear what that compromise would look like. The House likely does not have enough votes to include lots of extra spending, so it may come down to a matter of political priorities as to what domestic spending stays. In this calculus, science funding hasn’t fared well.

In reality, the strategy to secure additional research funding in the supplemental was always a long-shot. After the supplemental drama plays out, the focus will quickly turn to the FY09 bills. Unfortunately the prospects for fixing research funding in these bills are just as bleak. The same budget politics hanging over the supplemental apply to the FY09 bills. Conventional wisdom is that Congress and the President will pass some sort of super-sized continuing resolution (CR) until the next President is in office — meaning agencies will be funded at their FY08 levels, but some will get carved out and receive increases. There is precedent for “carving out” science funding in a super-sized CR, but it is still a difficult political fight to convince Congress that it should be.

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