Zero is starting to look like a pretty nice number to some U.S. scientists.
Yesterday, a congressional spending subcommittee proposed holding next year's budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) at its current level of $6.86 billion, in other words, zero increase. But instead of gnashing their teeth over the panel's failure to back President Barack Obama's request for a $907-million increase (13%), science lobbyists say they're thrilled that legislators had "spared" NSF from the cuts made to other agencies in the $50-billion bill that funds NASA and science programs within the Department of Commerce as well as other federal agencies. And some are even heaping praise on the chair of the House of Representatives commerce, justice, and science appropriations subcommittee, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), for embracing the importance of research in growing the U.S. economy.
"The overall number is pretty good. In fact, this may be the best appropriation we can expect for NSF," says Amy Scott, a policy analyst for the non-profit Association of American Universities. "Given the current budget situation, people appreciate Mr. Wolf's decision to hold NSF steady at 2011 levels."
Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, is even more effusive. "We're delighted with the [subcommittee] markup … and that NSF was one of the few agencies that did not suffer cuts."
Wolf says that he would have liked to do more for NSF but that his hands were tied by his allocation, the spending ceiling set by the Republican-controlled House that applies to all the programs under the committee's jurisdiction. This year's ceiling of $50.2 billion is 6% ($3.1 billion) below current, 2011 spending levels, and the overall budgets for the Commerce and Justice departments were reduced by close to that amount. Still, he's proud of what he did accomplish.
"If you treated everybody in the bill the same, you'd have had to take down every single program," Wolf told ScienceInsider yesterday. "But that's not what we did. Under the allocation, we worked hard to protect the sciences. I think that NSF came out very, very well in the bill, and so did NASA."
Fans of NASA's proposed Webb telescope would disagree, of course, as the panel recommended its demise. And Wolf's definition of doing well is a far cry from what the White House has in mind for NSF. While Wolf touts a $43-million increase for NSF's research programs, for example, he doesn't mention that Obama requested a boost of $689 million for those same programs. Nor does he say that the $43 million was subtracted from the budget for the education directorate, while the Administration had sought an increase of $39 million.
The White House increases are in line with a 10-year doubling of NSF's budget that was first proposed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and that has been endorsed twice by Congress, most recently in a bill in 2010. But that legislation contains non-binding spending levels. Asked whether his new spending bill kills any chance for the promised doubling, Wolf says that the current round of negotiations on the national debt between Obama and Congress will determine its fate—and a lot more.
"Everything that is going on in this country will depend on whether there is an overall budget agreement," Wolf says. "Right now, all the cuts are coming out of the 12% of the budget [that funds so-called domestic discretionary spending programs like research]. So until you deal with all the entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other mandatories—and consider additional revenue, you won't be able to answer any questions about next year. But I think that the sciences have come out very well in this bill."