Senate Panel Cuts NSF Budget by $162 Million

"We've gone beyond frugality and are into austerity. … We didn't want to do this, but that's the way the world is."

Those gloomy words, from Senator Barbara Mikuski (D-MD), were the clearest indication yet that 2012 will be a very tough year for scientists seeking funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Mikulski, a long-time booster of science, is also chair of the Senate spending panel that funds NSF, NASA, and the key research agencies within the Department of Commerce. And this afternoon her panel voted out an appropriations bill that would cut NSF's current budget by 2.4%, or $162 million. In July, the equivalent House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would hold NSF's budget steady next year at $6.86 billion.

Mikulski was clearly unhappy that her Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies didn't have the resources to do more. Its overall allocation of $52.7 billion for all the agencies under its jurisdiction was $626 million less than the panel received in 2011, and a whopping $5 billion below the president's 2012 request for those agencies. She was especially troubled by her inability to expand what she called "science and innovation" across the federal government. Along with the cuts to NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), based in her home state of Maryland, would see its budget drop by roughly 10%, to $680 million. And the Technology Innovation Program, long a Republican target but previously protected by Democrats, would be eliminated, as would the Baldrige program to reward industrial excellence.

"We've always tried to follow the allocations in the America COMPETES Act," she explained, referring to 2007 and 2010 laws that authorize research and education programs at NSF, NASA, and NIST. "But while COMPETES calls for increases at NSF and NIST, we've had to make cuts." A few minutes earlier, Mikulski noted with shock that, "for the first time as chair, I've eliminated programs."

Yet even within what she called a "stringent budget environment" across the entire government, two science programs fared well. The panel allocated $530 million for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, reviving its fortunes after the House panel axed it. And the Joint Polar Satellite System within the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration would get $920 million, some $438 million above its current level and more than double the House panel's mark of $430 million. Mikulski said that "the next-generation weather satellites" such as JPSS were one of the panel's top two priorities, on a par with coping with the country's growing prison population.

More details will become available after a vote, scheduled for tomorrow, by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Today's action was approved by a bipartisan margin of 15 to 1, with only Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) voting against the bill.