A Bare-Bones Budget for U.S. Science

Congress belatedly finished its work on the 2005 federal budget over the weekend, in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. And the $388 billion bill, which covers most of the government's annual domestic discretionary spending, is a real turkey for many U.S. scientists.

The omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 4818), which combines what are normally nine individual spending bills into a single measure, meets the Bush Administration's goal of holding discretionary spending not related to defense and homeland security to a mere 1% rise over 2004. Although that accomplishment thrilled fiscal conservatives, it was painful for science lobbyists and others who had hoped that researchers would win a bigger share of the federal pie. The National Institutes of Health, for example, was held to a 2% increase, or $571 million more, whereas the smaller National Science Foundation shrinks by nearly 2%, or $107 million. NASA is the biggest winner, with a 4.6% boost that nearly matches the president's request and conforms to the Administration's high-priority label for the agency.

Here are some details from selected agencies:

National Institutes of Health: In the second year of a sharp slowdown after a 5-year budget doubling, NIH fell short of the president's request for $729 million more. And once again, a piece of its $28.4 billion budget is being redirected: 2.4% to other Public Health Service programs, and $100 million for the Global Aids Fund. Biomedical research watchers anticipate the success rate for individual investigators to dip in 2005 because of the budget squeeze. The good news: The final bill drops language inserted by the House of Representatives that would have barred funds for two psychology research grants opposed by conservatives and tells NIH officials to review all the comments on its proposal to make the fruits of NIH-funded research more accessible to the public.

National Science Foundation: For the first time in nearly 20 years, NSF's research account will fail to grow. Instead, the $4.25 billion account will dip by $30 million. The agency's education budget tumbles by more than 10%, to $841 million, most of it to honor the president's request to wind down a 3-year-old math-science partnerships program linking university scientists with local school districts. Congress also rejected the agency's request for a $75 million management initiative.

The budget squeeze could clog NSF's pipeline of planned major construction. The bill approves two starts--a high-energy physics experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and a renovated ocean drilling vessel--but at roughly half their requested amounts, and it provides only planning and design money for an ecological network. At the same time, it awards $5 million to begin designing a 30-meter segmented telescope that is still undergoing NSF review.

NASA: The space agency appears to have scored a victory with a $16.2 billion budget, only $44 million shy of the president's request, before a $135 million across-the-board cut that was applied to all agencies. A Hubble rescue mission gets $291 million, which wasn't in NASA's request. Finding the money poses a threat to its science programs, in ways not yet determined. The agency must also figure out how to accommodate $426 million in earmarks, along with the rising price of returning the space shuttle to flight and completing the international space station.

Department of Energy: The Office of Science will grow by 2.8%, to $3.6 billion. The modest increases cover high-energy physics, fusion research, nuclear physics, computing research, and basic energy sciences.

Environmental Protection Agency: Hard times continue at EPA, which will have a 2005 budget of $744 million for its Science and Technology account, about three-quarters of which is used for research and development. That level is down 4.9% from last year, but up 8% from the president's request.

U.S. Geological Survey: USGS came away with a total budget of $935 million, down slightly from the 2004 level of $938 million.

National Institute of Standards and Technology: NIST's in-house research labs got a 10% boost, to $379 million, which restores most of an even bigger drop in 2004. The agency's perennially controversial Advanced Technology Program to fund precompetitive industrial research escapes the president's ax, although none of its $136 million can be spent on new grants.

Related site
Highlights of the omnibus appropriations bill