The annual U.S. federal budget cycle is set to kick off today at 11:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C., when the White House releases its spending request to Congress for the 2016 fiscal year that begins in October. Many researchers will be watching closely to see how it treats the agencies that fund their work—and ScienceInsider will be reporting the numbers and providing analysis throughout the day.
President Barack Obama has already signaled that he will ask for a 7% increase in discretionary spending (the part of the budget that includes annual research funding). But it’s not yet known how much key science funding agencies will get. Then the Republican-led Congress gets to weigh in, and it’s almost certain to object to things the president wants. Still, the White House request helps set the terms of the annual budget debate, which likely won’t be settled until late this year.
Here is some background that will help you put the numbers in context, along with some resources that provide more information.
1. The big picture: Most federal spending pays for mandatory programs and interest on the debt.
All federal spending on research and development (about $140 billion in 2015) fits into the relatively small “discretionary spending” portion of the federal budget. Discretionary spending, which is the only part of the budget that Congress and the White House can control from year to year, accounted for just 29% of the nearly $4 trillion the government will spend this year (the green slice in this pie chart, prepared by the nonprofit National Priorities Project). The rest—71%—goes to so-called mandatory programs, such as the Medicare health program for senior citizens, and interest on the federal debt. This spending is automatic, although Congress can always change the rules that determine how it will be distributed. (The next few charts are based on the White House's 2015 spending request.)
2. Science gets about 1% of total annual federal spending, but that’s not the most important number.
Science is that tiny light orange slice at the lower right.
3. What really matters is science’s share of discretionary spending: Three cents out of every dollar.
That red slice of the pie (upper left) feeds many researchers. Overall, military spending accounts for about one-half of discretionary spending. And although the Pentagon funds some science, most is funded by nondefense agencies. (The military is a major funder of a few fields, including engineering research, computer science, and math.)
4. The majority of funding for basic and applied research comes from nondefense agencies.
Many analysts consider spending on basic research to be an especially important barometer of the health of the scientific enterprise. It’s seen as the foundation for innovation, new products, and a higher standard of living. The majority of basic research spending comes from the nondefense discretionary budget.
5. Six agencies account for more than 95% of total federal expenditures on basic research, which amounts to about $32 billion this year.
Biomedical research rules. The National Institutes of Health is the single most important supporter of basic research, followed by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA. (These numbers come from the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.)
6. Federal R&D spending has flattened in recent years.
A variety of forces, including a laboring economy and efforts to rein in federal spending in the face of looming deficits, have caused some research agency budgets to grow relatively slowly, or in some cases fail to keep pace with inflation. These trends have prompted concern in the research community, which argues they threaten to dampen innovation and long-term economic growth. (In the graph below. "ARRA" refers to the 2009 stimulus spending package.)
Many research groups are hoping that the 2016 budget process ends with appreciable increases in federal spending on research. But a 2011 budget deal between Congress and the White House puts relatively tight limits on how much discretionary spending can grow. With its request for a 7% increase, the White House will argue that it is time to lift those caps. But budget hawks say that the federal deficit, now $460 billion after topping $1 trillion early in the Obama administration, is still too large. Whose side will prevail?
If you’d like to learn more about the federal budget process and U.S. science spending, check out these resources:
The R&D Budget and Policy Program of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider)
Come back to ScienceInsider to see our rolling coverage of the budget release.
Click here to see all of our Budget 2016 coverage.
*Clarification, 1 February, 10:02 p.m.: The text accompanying the third graph has been revised to clarify that it refers to all discretionary spending and that the military is a major funder of some research fields.
*Updated, 2 February, 7:45 a.m.