Good News for Research Funding at EPA, USDA, USGS

Science was favored in today's federal budget rollout for several agencies with sizable research portfolios, with increases for hot topics such as the environmental impact of "fracking" for natural gas.

Although the overall budget at the Environmental Protection Agency would fall from $9.4 billion to $8.9 billion under President Barack Obama's proposal, EPA's Science & Technology account would see a 1.5% increase over its final 2012 budget to $807 million. That's a much better prospect than for the previous two budgets, when the Administration proposed 2.5% and then 3.9% cuts to the same account. In its budget overview, EPA highlighted several efforts it wants to boost. Topping the list are $8.0 million to study hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale rock for natural gas; $4.1 million for research into the design of more environmentally friendly chemicals; and $3.3 million for climate change science. The agency would also like to create a $2-million Center for Innovative Estuarine Approaches that would study ways to "ensure the sustainability" of coastal watersheds and estuaries.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would see a 3% decrease overall, the Administration once again shows it's a big fan of competitive agricultural research. Like last year, the request includes a 23% increase in competitive research, which would raise the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) budget to $325 million. "In this budget environment, that's a real positive," extols Karl Glasener, director of science policy for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. (Congress has not been as enthusiastic, appropriating $265 million last year for AFRI.)

In contrast, so-called formula and capacity grants, which are awarded to land grant universities, would see a 1.2% decrease to $676 million. The $1.1-billion Agricultural Research Service, which performs the agency's intramural research, would see just a $75 million increase for pest management, food safety, and sustainable agriculture.

There's a similar story at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Its research and development portfolio would get an 8% boost over what was funded for 2012, even though the overall agency budget would rise just 3% to $1.1 billion. The USGS increases would come in several high profile areas. For example, the request dramatically boosts USGS research on the environmental and health impacts of natural gas fracking from $5.6 million to $18.6 million. A similarly large increase would raise the funding for research on mitigating natural hazards from $2.3 million to $10.9 million. This work is intended to enhance USGS's ability to assess potential damage from hazards such as landslides and volcanic eruptions, as well as provide better warnings. USGS is also requesting an additional $16.2 million (the baseline wasn't known at press time) for research on ecosystem restoration projects, such as controlling Burmese pythons that have invaded the Florida Everglades.

Robert Gropp, who heads the USGS Coalition, welcomes the increases. "We appreciate that the USGS has received some new funding," he says. But he adds that coalition members have some concerns about proposed cuts to water resource programs. They also worry that the increases will be eaten up by fixed costs, such as those for facilities, a long-standing issue at the USGS.

Correction: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the amount and change of the formula grants.