NIH, DOE Appear Headed For Small Budget Increases in 2012

A fit of Congressional pique is giving researchers their first solid look at 2012 spending levels for two major science agencies—and the news appears to be relatively good for both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, with both in line to get small increases.

With little notice, the Republican leadership of the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives very early this morning (1 a.m. EST) posted to its Web site details of a $1 trillion package of spending bills that has been the subject of intense year-end negotiations with Senate Democrats.

Senate leaders, however, had refused to sign off on public release of the details of the so-called "omnibus" package—which provides funding for 10 departments and other government agencies—until they had worked out a compromise on a separate bill extending a payroll tax cut. But House Republicans apparently decided to move ahead anyway, releasing details of what appears to be the compromise package in order to allow the House to vote on the omnibus and increase political pressure on Senate Democrats to act.

The standoff could result in a government shutdown if the two bodies aren't able to agree on a final budget by Friday, when the government's current spending authority expires. Few observers, however, expect a shutdown to occur, although the fight could complicate efforts to pass the remaining spending bills. Congress has already approved spending levels for several other departments and agencies.

The numbers included in the package aren't final, and the omnibus package could still be derailed by disagreements over a number of "riders" aimed at blocking environmental regulations, regulating travel to Cuba, and regulating abortion. In addition, House leaders have proposed paying for $8.1 billion in federal disaster aid by imposing a 1.83% across-the-board cut to non-defense spending, which would further reduce science budgets. That proposal, however, is unlikely to be accepted by the Senate, and appears to be part of a larger negotiating strategy.

The numbers included in the House legislation, meanwhile, appear to reflect agreement between House and Senate negotiators.

  • NIH would receive a $239 million raise to $30.6 billion—a modest 0.8% increase. (These figures take into account a 0.2% trim to a broader bill that includes NIH.) That is less than the 3.3% boost requested by the Obama Administration and included in an earlier House bill, but more than the slight cut that a Senate panel had previously approved. The bill also follows through on a top priority for NIH Director Francis Collins: It creates a $576 million center aimed at moving basic discoveries into the clinic, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The bill also dismantles NIH's National Center for Research Resources.
  • DOE's Office of Science would get a $46 million increase to $4.889 billion, below the Obama Administration's request for $5.4 billion. The department's Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy would get $275 million, a major increase over its 2011 level of $179.6 million, but below the Administration's request for $650 million. Renewable energy research funding would remain flat at $1.8 billion, while nuclear power R&D would get a $43 million boost to $769 million. Fossil fuel programs would get an $81 million increase to $534 million.

The funding levels suggests that "there is still fundamental support for science in Congress—all in all we did OK," says Michael Lubell, public affairs chief for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. But he warns that the next few years "could be a lot more difficult," as efforts to trim federal spending kick in.