Senate Trims Science Budgets

Congress is finally getting moving on this year's federal budget, and lawmakers may leave scientists feeling not quite as flush as they had hoped. The Senate today began finalizing a 2003 spending plan that would shave at least 1.6% off previously proposed science budgets in order to meet White House wishes. Still, several major research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), appear headed for hefty increases.

Congress was supposed to complete work by 30 September on the 13 spending bills that make up the annual federal budget. But election-year politics delayed action on 11 of the bills, with only two defense-related measures winning approval late last year. All other agencies have been operating on temporary funding measures that freeze spending at last year's levels. Now, Republican leaders want to finish the new budget by the end of this month, so that the Bush Administration can introduce its 2004 budget proposal in early February free from distractions. Meeting that schedule, however, was complicated by White House demands that lawmakers restrain spending in light of a slumping economy and a looming war.

To get the ball rolling, Senate appropriators yesterday released a budget blueprint that imposes a 1.6% across-the-board cut on draft budgets already written by various Senate panels. It also shifts funds from some areas to others. Although details are scarce, sources say NIH would get about a 13% increase, to about $26.3 billion. That is less than the 16% boost once envisioned and would leave biomedical research advocates short of their goal of doubling NIH's budget over 5 years.

NSF would get an 8.4% overall boost, to $5.2 billion, topping the president's 5% request but well short of the 12% approved in July by a Senate panel. Cuts fell the hardest on a presidential initiative to improve math and science education by linking universities with local school districts, and an earthquake detection and research network called EarthScope. The partnerships program would lose $15 million under the Senate plan, leaving it with $105 million rather than the $200 million requested by the White House. EarthScope's funding would be eliminated. The White House had requested $35 million for the project, and the Senate had previously approved $20 million. But appropriators are hoping to preserve a double-digit increase for NSF's $3.6 billion research account.

The numbers may still change during Senate debate, which could last into next week. And the House of Representatives must agree to final figures. But "things are finally moving," says one science lobbyist. "The question is whether we like where we end up."