Senate Spending Bill Would Boost NSF, NIH Budgets

In some good fiscal news yesterday for the U.S. science community, a Senate spending panel has crafted a 2011 federal budget that would give several science agencies increases that are close to their requested levels. But lobbyists say that it's too soon to celebrate.

Both the omnibus bill, unveiled by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the legislation passed last week by the House of Representatives would fund the government through September 2011. But that's where the similarity ends. The Senate bill contains $20 billion more in domestic discretionary spending than the House version, for starters, although it's still $26 billion below the president's request for $1.134 trillion. By stitching together 12 separate spending bills that were drafted earlier in the year, it also contains language affecting programs at every federal agency. In contrast, the House bill passed last week would hold most agencies to current (2010) spending levels, although it provides some small boosts for a few agencies.

The Senate bill also contains $8 billion in earmarks, projects chosen by individual members to benefit their districts or states. Many universities are beneficiaries of such largess. For example, this year's spending bill includes the final $45 million installment for a complex of research buildings at the University of Alabama, courtesy of Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), who since 2008 has racked up $135 million for his alma mater.

That money is certain to trigger a fight within Congress, however, as most Republicans and many Democrats say they will oppose any spending bill that contains such goodies. The House bill eschews that time-honored practice, although many members are secretly glad that their Senate counterparts have inserted them.

With respect to specific agencies, the Senate omnibus would give the National Science Foundation (NSF) an increase of 5.7%, to $7.345 billion. That $419 million boost is close to the president's requested increase of $498 million for the agency. In contrast, the House version would hold NSF to its current $6.926 billion budget. The Senate bill also orders NSF to maintain its programs to support historically black and tribal colleges and universities, nixing NSF's request to merge them into a single program to serve underrepresented groups.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would receive three-quarters of its requested $1 billion increase. That $750 million boost is still better than the House version, which would hold NIH to its current $31 billion budget. The Senate bill also gives NIH $194 million to continue its controversial National Children's Study, which hopes to track 100,000 children from birth to adulthood. And it doubles the $25 million in the House version for a drug-development program created in the health care reform act.

"The fact that NIH got anything is great," says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland. FASEB members have sent 9500 emails to lawmakers urging them to give NIH the $1 billion boost that the president requested.

The Senate bill matches language in the House bill for science programs at NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE). For NASA, that's good news—it meets the full 12% request by the president, to $5.006 billion. For DOE Office of Science; however, it's a bummer: Instead of the requested 4.4% increase, the office would maintain its current budget of $4.9 billion. At the same time, DOE's new agency to fund innovative energy research would thrive under either bill. The Senate provides $200 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, whereas the House bill meets the president's request for $300 million for the 3-year-old agency.

So what's next? Inouye hopes to win Senate passage of his bill in the next few days, although Republicans will attempt various parliamentary maneuvers to stretch out that timetable. If Inouye succeeds, the House is expected to embrace the higher spending levels. If Republicans prevail, however, then Congress may punt the 2011 spending bill into the next Congress, in which Republicans will control the House and Senate Democrats will hold only a slim majority. If that happens, say science lobbyists, even flat budgets may be overly optimistic.