Republicans control both houses of Congress, but they don’t speak with one voice when it comes to funding research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and other agencies. That difference became clear last week after the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a 2016 spending bill that does not call for the steep cuts to climate and social science programs approved a week earlier by the House of Representatives. And although the House would give NSF a bit more money, the Senate version hews closer to the balanced portfolio that most scientists prefer.
In the House, key lawmakers have made headway with the notion that the social sciences and climate research contribute less to the nation than “pure” disciplines, such as physics, biology, engineering, and computing. That worldview is reflected in a $51 billion spending bill approved by the House on 4 June to fund NSF, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several other federal agencies.
At NOAA, for example, the so-called CJS (Commerce, Justice, and Science) bill would cut climate research programs by $30 million, or 19% below current levels, and $60 million below the president’s request. At NASA, it would keep overall science spending flat, but cut earth science spending by $90 million, or 5%, a level $264 million less than the president’s request. At the same time, the House would boost NASA’s planetary science programs $216 million above the president’s request, including a big hike for a proposed mission to the jovian moon Europa.
The NSF portion of the House bill takes a swipe at both the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. Although NSF’s overall budget would inch up by $50 million, to $7.4 billion, the bill would significantly reshuffle NSF’s research priorities. It directs NSF to put 70% of its $6 billion research account into four of its six research directorates—biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences. (They now receive about 65%.) That change, combined with language protecting a research infrastructure program and graduate fellowships, would result in a combined 16%, $255 million cut to the two directorates under attack—geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences (see chart).
“I’m asking NSF to prioritize,” said Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who led the writing of the CJS bill, after his spending panel approved it last month. “I want … them to make the hard sciences—math and physics and pure science—a priority.”
That’s a view shared by a fellow Texan, Republican Representative Lamar Smith, head of the House science panel. The pure sciences “typically yield better results,” he told Science last week. “That’s why we moved the money.”
Smith’s comment came after a speech to The Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that vociferously challenges mainstream climate science, in which he praised the House’s effort to cut NASA’s earth science budget. “NASA spends a lot of money on climate change—they call it earth science—so we cut NASA’s earth science budget by close to 40%,” Smith said, exaggerating the 6% cut from current levels. “The reason we did it is that there’s only one agency dealing with space exploration, while there are a dozen agencies dealing with climate change.”
The Senate CJS panel, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL), has taken a very different tack. Its bill, approved by the full appropriations panel on 11 June, gives NASA’s earth science program most of the large increase requested by the president and tops the House number for NASA science by $15 million, although that is still short of the president’s request. At NOAA, it would shave just $5 million from climate research, a 3% cut from current levels. And Senate appropriators do not single out any of NSF’s six directorates for rough treatment. Instead, they list all of them by name in a report accompanying the bill. Those words are “the subcommittee's subtle way to say that it does not agree with the House's approach,” says Joel Widder of Federal Science Partners, a small consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
The Senate language could come into play later this year when the two bodies try to reconcile their differences, Widder says. Last year, he notes, the Senate did not oppose a House move to block any increase for geosciences, which made it into the final CJS bill. This year, the Senate staffers who will assist in the negotiations “are well aware of our concerns,” says Amy Scott of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., which opposes the earth and social science cuts. “And they have told us that their members have a different perspective than in the House.”
The dispute is playing out in the shadow of a broader question: how much money will be available for all federal programs. Two years ago, the Obama administration and congressional Republicans struck a deal on overall spending levels that helped ease passage of spending bills for 2014 and 2015. But there’s no such agreement for fiscal year 2016, which starts on 1 October. Republican leaders are sticking to strict annual spending caps set by a 2011 law as they assemble their budget bills. In contrast, most Democrats and some Republicans want the caps lifted so they can spend more on both defense and civilian programs.
Senate Democrats are threatening to block work on several spending measures in hopes of getting Republicans to the negotiating table. Without some kind of compromise, the entire federal government would have to shut down after 30 September.