NSF, NASA Slated for Cuts

A House spending panel voted today to shrink the next budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. But observers say the two science agencies shouldn't take it personally. Instead, election-year politics have created a perfect storm that shows little sign of abating.

The panel agreed to lop off $117 million from NSF's current $5.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins 1 October. That 2.1% drop flies in the face of the Administration's promise to double the agency's budget over 5 years, and checks in well below even the meager 3% request for 2005 that President George W. Bush submitted to Congress in February. Similarly, the panel carved $228 million from NASA's $15.3 billion budget. For NASA, the 1.5% cut in 2005 is a rebuke of the president's ambitious proposal to explore the moon and Mars, which was part of his requested 6% increase.

"These cuts represent a reversal for two critical research agencies at a time when greater investments in research are essential to maintaining America's global leadership in science and technology," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the 62-member Association of American Universities, in a prepared statement. "We cannot afford to jeopardize that leadership."

The belt-tightening stems from the panel's decision to put all of its allocated 2005 increase--and more--into a $2.5 billion hike for veterans' health care. In addition, the panel was forced to abide by an oppressively low spending ceiling imposed by the Republican leadership to satisfy the president's attempt to simultaneously cut taxes and rein in spending. That hurt NSF, NASA, and dozens of other independent agencies in the spending bill. The Environmental Protection Agency's overall 2005 budget, for example, would be set at $7.8 billion, down $613 million from FY 2004.

For NSF, the spending plan would cut its $4.2 billion, bread-and-butter research account by $194 million from the president's request for those programs. It would also delay construction on the National Ecological Observatories Network and take $10 million off plans to refurnish an ocean drilling research vessel, while speeding up construction of an underground neutrino detector in Antarctica by giving it $17 million more than NSF had requested. The panel also voted to end a program to link universities with local schools to improve science and math education, in line with the Administration's request to move the program into the Department of Education. But it kept $82 million to finish out existing grants, as well as adding back money to several education and training programs that the Administration wanted to cut.

According to the panel's plans, NASA would be funded at $15.1 billion, $1.1 billion below the president's request. The reductions include $12 million from the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter payload; $438 million from delaying the Crew Exploration Vehicle for the space shuttle; and $100 million from Space Launch Initiatives by accelerating the termination of activities. The bill fully funds shuttle operations at the requested level of $4.3 billion. Also completely bankrolled are Mars programs, at the requested level of $691 million.

The spending bill won't be taken up by the full House until September, and the comparable Senate spending panel has not yet begun work on the bill--so the final numbers may not be known until after November. That leaves several months for NSF and NASA to bob on the rough waters of election-year politics.