Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

Andrew Magill/Flickr

Updated: Budget agreement boosts U.S. science

Congress today overwhelmingly passed the 2016 spending bill. The House of Representatives this morning voted 316 to 113, with a majority of Republicans and nearly all Democrats favoring the $1.1 trillion package for all federal agencies. The Senate concurred a few hours later with a vote of 65 to 33. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law later today.

Early on 16 December, congressional leaders released the text of an omnibus spending bill that will fund all federal agencies for the rest of the 2016 fiscal year. We’ve taken a look at how individual agencies fared under the bill (see bullets below). Science has also compiled a table showing the budgets of key research agencies and programs.

These stories appear following this summary of the legislation.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) leads the way among U.S. science agencies getting increases in the final 2016 spending bill released today.

NIH is the winner in absolute dollars. It gets a bump of $2 billion, or 6.6%, from its current budget of $30.1 billion. Spending on science programs at NASA would grow by 6.6%, to $5.6 billion, and rise by 5.6% in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, to $5.35 billion. The National Science Foundation would receive an additional $119 million, or 1.6%, to $7.46 billion, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would get a 6% boost, to $291 million.

“It’s fantastic news. We’re beyond excited,” says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. United for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C.–based lobbying group, says “this meaningful increase for NIH makes real progress toward catching up from the past decade of underfunding and keeping up with scientific advancements and public health needs.”

With the exception of NIH, these final numbers are higher than what was contained in spending bills for individual agencies passed by panels in the House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this year. The increases were made possible by a late-October agreement between Congress and the White House that set overall spending levels for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. It added $50 billion this year to the $1.017 trillion spent in 2015, divided equally between civilian and military spending, and $30 billion in 2017. The agreement also negated the threat of a government shutdown this fall from conservatives unhappy with any increase in federal spending.

There could be more to the story, however. Congressional leaders have not yet released the report language that accompanies the 2009-page omnibus spending bill. That language contains specific instructions to agencies about how to allocate their dollars. And those instructions could ruffle some feathers.

In the meantime, Congress did spell out a few things in the overall bill itself. For example, NASA was given $175 million to continue work on a mission to Jupiter’s Europa moon, a pet project of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who leads the House spending panel that oversees NASA. And DOE was told not to spend more than $115 million on the U.S. contribution to ITER, the international fusion reactor being built in France, until ITER officials present a new schedule for the troubled project. It also requires DOE to recommend, by May 2016, whether the U.S. should stay in ITER or withdraw.

U.S. Congress/OMB

In other provisions, the bill would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the department’s main competitive grants program, a 7.7% boost to $350 million. That’s less than the $450 million requested by the White House. But farm scientists pushing to boost AFRI’s budget to $700 million by 2018 hope the bump signals better times ahead. Overall, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service gets a roughly 1% boost to $1.144 billion.

The massive spending bill also includes several policy and tax provisions. Democrats failed in their attempt to lift a de facto ban on research into gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But legislators did agree to make permanent and expand the tax credit for new research investments by companies. That move ends decades of uncertainty and political brinksmanship: Since Congress created the credit in 1981, lawmakers have allowed it to lapse six times—most recently last year—and have temporarily extended it 17 times.

The House and the Senate must still vote on the bill, with debate expected to last until at least the end of the week. In the meantime, Congress is expected to vote today on another 5-day extension of current spending levels to avoid a government shutdown at midnight.—With reporting by David Malakoff.

2016 spending bill gives NIH $2 billion raise, largest in 12 years
Bill also includes 60% bump for Alzheimer’s research 

By Jocelyn Kaiser

One of the biggest winners in the 2016 omnibus spending bill is the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is slated to receive a $2 billion boost, to $32.1 billion. That 6.6% increase is the largest that NIH has received in 12 years.

The increase matches the amount approved by a Senate spending panel in June and doubles what President Obama had requested back in February. It’s “an amazing outcome for NIH,” says Pat White, president of ACT for NIH, a group that lobbies for NIH funding. The bill "ends the downward spiral in funding for lifesaving biomedical research.” NIH has received only slight yearly increases, if any, since 2003, when Congress completed a 5-year doubling of its budget. Adjusted for inflation, its budget has fallen 22%.

The bill includes $350 million in new spending for Alzheimer’s disease research, a 60% increase over the 2015 amount and well above the president’s request of $51 million. It contains the $200 million requested by Obama for his Precision Medicine Initiative, $85 million in new funding for the BRAIN Initiative, and a $100-million boost for NIH’s role in a federal initiative on antimicrobial resistance. The National Children’s Study (NCS) follow-on, a revamped version of a study that NIH scrapped last year, receives $165 million, the same amount allocated for the NCS in 2015.

The rest of the increase is spread among NIH’s institutes and centers, most of which will receive a boost of roughly 4%.

The bill preserves the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which funds studies to improve health care delivery, but trims its budget 8%, to $334 million. The Senate appropriations committee had voted for a deeper, 35% cut, and the corresponding House spending panel had wanted to eliminate the agency. “We’re pleased that they rejected the House proposal,” says Dave Moore, senior director of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which had pushed to save AHRQ.

At long last, Congress to make R&D tax credit permanent
Move marks end of decades of uncertainty

By David Malakoff

Ending decades of uncertainty and political brinksmanship, Congress is poised to lock in a tax break for companies investing in research and development. Legislation unveiled today would make the so-called R&D tax credit permanent, and expand the number of companies that will qualify.

The bill, which Congress is expected to approve later this week, would end the tax credit’s roller-coaster history: Since it was created in 1981, lawmakers have allowed it to lapse six times—most recently last year—and temporarily extended it 17 times. The uncertainty created by that pattern infuriated many businesses, and industry groups, economists, and research advocates have long pushed Congress to make the credit permanent.

That idea won broad, bipartisan backing, but cost was a major obstacle. The credit currently costs the government some $7 billion in tax revenue annually, and analysts estimated that making it permanent would cost $100 billion to $150 billion over 10 years. But some economists argued those costs would be far outweighed by the benefits. One study released last year by three academic economists concluded that making the credit permanent could boost the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.16% annually, and add between 36,000 and 38,300 jobs each year.

Such arguments appear to have finally swayed lawmakers, who included the permanent R&D extension in a much larger bill that extends or retools more than 50 tax provisions.

“This announcement is a historic and very promising breakthrough,” said Dorothy Coleman of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., in a statement. “Short of comprehensive tax reform, this is one of the most significant steps Congress has taken in decades to improve our out-of-date tax code for businesses.”

Just a year ago, a major effort to pass a tax bill that included a permanent R&D credit ended in chaos and partisan bickering on the floor of the House of Representatives. “This place is dysfunctional,” Representative Jim McDermott (D–WA) said at the time, adding that he was pessimistic about the credit’s future. “Everyone should take note of today, the third of December,” he said then, warning that “next year, right about this time, we will be right back here with the same bill.”

He was right about the timing. Only this time, it appears the outcome will be far more to his liking.

White-nose bat study funded

Geological Survey gets a small increase

By David Malakoff

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would get a $17 million increase, or 1.6%, to $1.062 billion.

According a report accompanying the bill, the total includes an additional $500,000 to study white-nose syndrome, the fungal disease that has been killing millions of bats. The bill also provides $500,000 to study new and emerging wildlife diseases and adds $1 million to USGS's $26-million volcano hazards programs, specifically to repair and upgrade systems that focus on monitoring “high-threat” volcanoes.

Lawmakers rejected a White House request to build and launch a thermal imaging instrument that would have observed Earth’s surface, and they erased a $2-million cut from USGS’s minerals mapping program that the White House had proposed.

FDA gets 5% bump and ban on gene editing

By Kelly Servick

Lawmakers called for more health research on e-cigarettes.

Lawmakers called for more health research on e-cigarettes.

www.vaping360.com

Count the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) among the winners in today’s budget agreement. The bill provides the agency with about $2.72 billion, not including $1.96 billion in anticipated user fees collected from companies applying for FDA review. The number is just shy of the president’s $2.75 billion request, and represents an increase of nearly 5% over 2015 levels. The bump is “pretty darned good in this environment,” says Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

Lawmakers provided support for FDA’s contribution to two major research initiatives laid out in President Obama’s budget request. It would receive $8.7 million to extend its review of antibacterial drugs and oversight of antibiotics in livestock as part of the Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB) initiative, a national strategy that has prompted Congress to nearly double overall spending on antibiotic resistance across several agencies, to $774 million in 2016.

The agency will also receive $2.4 million for its initial contribution to the new government-wide Precision Medicine Initiative aimed at ensuring the accuracy of genetic tests. (Yesterday, the agency launched precisionFDA, a web platform for diagnostics companies, researchers, and healthcare providers to validate genetic tests against reference materials and share their results.)

Notably absent is a proposal adopted earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives that would have exempted many e-cigarette manufacturers from FDA’s pre-market review process if their products are already on the market before the agency issues its upcoming “final rule” to regulate them. The bill does allocate $1 million for a “contract” between the FDA’s  Center for Tobacco Products and the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a more thorough study of the health effects of e-cigarettes and suggest how federal funds should be spent on future e-cigarette research.

In line with the views of most biomedical researchers, lawmakers struck a note of caution about the implications of new gene editing techniques that make heritable changes to human embryos. The bill forbids FDA from using funds in the bill to evaluate—or even “acknowledge the receipt of”—submissions for therapies based on research that modifies embryos. Such research is not currently eligible for NIH funding, and is still years from producing therapies that regulators would have to green light before they could be tested in humans.

NASA science budget rises 6.6%

Planetary science sees biggest boost with continued support for a Europa mission

By Eric Hand

  	An ocean underneath Europa's icy shell is a potential habitat for life.

An ocean underneath Europa's icy shell is a potential habitat for life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s the best day for space science in years: NASA’s science budget rises to $5.6 billion in the budget agreement that Congress reached today, a jump of 6.6% from 2015 levels. And as usual, NASA’s planetary science division, a favorite of key congressional appropriators, did best of all, with a 13.4% boost to $1.63 billion. Language in the bill directs the agency not only to apply $175 million to a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, but also that the mission should have a lander component.

Casey Dreier, director of advocacy for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, says it’s the best budget the division has seen in a decade. “Pleased is an understatement,” he says.

Like many federal agencies accustomed to skimpy budget increases, or none at all, NASA did well overall in the budget agreement, rising 7.1% to $19.3 billion. The boost was due to an earlier budget agreement that lifted spending caps across the federal budget, allowing appropriators some wiggle room.

The planetary science division was a chief recipient. Part of the love stems from planetary science champions like Representative John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the spending panel that oversees NASA. He has long been obsessed with getting a mission to Europa, which harbors a salty ocean under an icy shell—perhaps the best habitat for potential life elsewhere in the solar system.

NASA formally began a mission earlier this year in the president’s 2016 budget request, after years of reluctance from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. However, the Europa mission is currently being designed as a spacecraft that will pursue a series of flybys. The new appropriations bill tasks the agency with including a lander component, which will add to the cost of the multi-billion-dollar mission. “The lander won’t be free,” says Dreier, who adds that the bill’s directive at least signals the support of Congress. The bill also directs that the mission launch no later than 2022, using the agency’s still-under-development Space Launch System rocket, a heavy lift vehicle that could power the Europa mission to Jupiter in a hurry.

Also within planetary science, the bill boosts the budget of the low-cost, competitive Discovery program to $189 million, which is a good sign that the agency will be able to get on to a faster path with its launches. Planetary science division director James Green has said that a good budget would allow NASA to select two of five finalists in the most recent competition.

NASA’s Earth science budget will be $1.92 billion, a rise of 8.4% from 2015 levels. “It could be a turning point,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “It takes us out of the hunker-down mentality.”

The Earth science division funding nearly matches the president’s budget request—a sign that the anti-climate science rumblings from House Republicans dissipated in the final reckoning. Last year, language was inserted into the final appropriations for the National Science Foundation (NSF) that limited some of its climate science research. Not only did that language disappear this year for the NSF, but none appeared in NASA’s Earth science division, Shultz says. “Part of the story is language that isn’t there,” she says.

Dreier was also pleased to see the boost, since Earth science funding was often targeted as a way for Congress to support rises within planetary science. “We’re not pitting sciences against each other,” he says. “The overall pie is growing.” At an AGU town hall meeting today in San Francisco, NASA earth science division director Mike Freilich told scientists that “we ended up … [in] quite a good place.”

One minor point of friction remains: The bill directs NASA to scrap plans for the Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer, a $180 million mission that the White House proposed in February. It would be a backup, in infrared wavelengths, to the long-running Landsat Earth observation program. Instead, Congress gives NASA $100 million to pursue the development of Landsat-9 as a rough copy of its predecessor, which launched in 2013.

In the astrophysics division, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) still dominates: It will receive $620 million in funding towards its 2018 launch, while the rest of the division gets $730 million, a rise of 6.7% over previous years. But there are also the first signs of life for the division, after JWST: Congress is giving NASA $90 million to begin work on the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope, which will aid in the search to understand dark matter and dark energy.

With a new lease on life, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) also continues to be funded, with $85 million for operations. In 2014, the administration tried to cancel the expensive, oft-criticized observatory, which contains a 2-meter telescope in the rear of a converted 747 jet. But Congress rushed to its aid. Bill language also orders NASA to give the mission a free pass from outside scrutiny of its scientific productivity. SOFIA will be excluded from the agency’s 2016 “senior review” of its astrophysics portfolio, because, in the eyes of appropriators, the mission has still not reached full operations.

Heliophysics, the smallest of NASA’s four science divisions, is the only one to feel a budget squeeze. Its budget will drop 1.8%, to $650 million.

NOAA research rises 4% in new budget

Final agreement emphasizes commercialization over agency priorities

By Carolyn Gramling

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stands to receive $5.77 billion, an increase of 6% over current levels. That includes $462 million for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), the agency’s main research arm, a 4% increase.

Several of the key requests in the White House’s budget were rejected, however. The budget provides only $58 million for climate research instead of the requested $89 million, and $10 million for ocean acidification research rather than the requested jump to $30 million.

Lawmakers directed NOAA to set aside $80 million for construction of a new research vessel, just over half of the White House’s request for $147 million, but noted that they anticipate requests for additional funding for outfitting the vessel and developing new sensors in coming years. NOAA was also directed to enter into at least one pilot contract to “assess the potential viability of commercial weather data in its weather modeling and forecasting.” That could nudge NOAA into licensing agreements with companies such as Spire or PlanetiQ, which are deploying constellations of CubeSats that listen for GPS signals skimming through the atmosphere and turn that into valuable atmospheric data.

The language also points to an ongoing struggle between NOAA and Congress over the management of fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico. Legislators embraced a plan to push the state fishery boundaries of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama from three nautical miles offshore out to nine nautical miles (this was already true for Texas and Florida). It would effectively be extending the fishing season for those Gulf states by giving boats access to more territory under state control. The lawmakers also directed Congress to use independent fish stock assessments in addition to NOAA assessments when determining fish quotas.

NOAA’s Polar Follow-on mission, intended to fill a pending gap in weather data, received $370 million. The language notes that NOAA’s mission for polar orbiting weather satellites “continues on a tenuous path.” It directs the administration to focus on staying on schedule and within budget for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) to be launched in 2017.

All things considered, the NOAA budget released today is “decently healthy,” says Jeff Watters, director of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C. Even some areas that weren’t highly funded – for example, ocean acidification research – still received a slight boost over the previous fiscal year. “It’s not the massive increase that the president requested, but it is a recognition that there’s a long way to go, in terms of what we need to know about this issue.”

Lawmakers had also specifically mentioned that the National Ocean Policy (NOP) wouldn’t receive any funds in the FY16 budget – noting that no funds had been requested, either. The NOP was created in 2010 to improve environmental stewardship of U.S. coastal oceans and great lakes; in 2013, the White House announced an “implementation plan” for the policy intended to help translate its goals into specific actions coordinated among agencies. 

But the fact that it wasn’t included in this year’s budget – or even in the president’s budget – isn’t very surprising, Watters says, given that the same language has been in the last two appropriations bills as well. NOP is an executive order, he notes, not a specific budget line item, and many of the outlined actions in the implementation plan have already been completed. As a result, the remaining actions may simply not have been a priority in the current fiscal climate.

“The more important thing to look at is NOAA’s overall funding level,” Watters says. Compared with earlier years, the budget isn’t flat, and it’s not reduced – and that means that its small gains add up to a general win. “It’s a reflection that people recognized that the science that NOAA does is crucially important across a range of issues.” 

  	A cow at the U.S. Meat National Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

A cow at the U.S. Meat National Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

Nati Harnik/AP images

Animal advocates hail tougher oversight provisions

Bill clamps down on agricultural research, offers wins for wildlife

By David Grimm

Today’s spending bill covering all U.S. agencies contains some good news for animal advocates. Congress has asked for more oversight of facilities that conduct research on livestock, effectively ended the use of so-called “random source” cats and dogs in biomedical research, and rejected a number of provisions that would have made it harder to protect threatened wildlife.

In perhaps its most dramatic step, Congress would withhold more than $57 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) if the ARS doesn’t update its animal care policies and ensure it has fully functioning Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees at 50-odd locations across the country. ARS came under fire early this year when The New York Times documented numerous cases of animal suffering and death at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in southern Nebraska, where scientists have been trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals. The incidents included newborn pigs being crushed by their mothers, starving lambs, and cows forced to become pregnant with twins and triplets, sometimes resulting in deformed offspring. “Despite having nearly a year to address this matter, the [ARS] has provided a wholly inadequate public response to the allegations of animal mistreatment at MARC and it has been delinquent in providing necessary information and updates to the Committees,” legislators wrote in report language that accompanies the omnibus spending bill.

“They were not grappling with the moral issues of using animals in research,” says Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, which has pushed for the bill’s language. “They were doing ghoulish experiments that weren’t in the public interest.”

The bill also appears to put the final nail in the coffin of using “random source” cats and dogs in biomedical research. These include animals procured from pounds and breeders, a pool that—at least in the past—has been suspected of including stolen and abused pets. In 2012, NIH stopped funding research on random source cats, and it followed with dogs in 2014. But those who sell these animals—known as Class B dealers—could still market them to labs that did not receive federal funding. Now Congress has said that it will not give money to the USDA to issue licenses to these dealers, effectively preventing them from selling any dogs or cats.

“We’re happy with the outcome,” says Cathy Liss, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Animal Welfare Institute, which has lobbied for the language. “The system is coming to its end.”

On the wildlife front, advocates are thrilled with what they didn’t see in the final spending bill. Earlier language had included provisions that would have delisted gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes from the Endangered Species Act, says Mary Beth Beetham, the director of legislative affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. It also would have hampered protection of other threatened species and blocked tougher restrictions on the ivory trade. None of that language appears in the final bill. Congress is still blocking protections for two species of sage grouse, but overall the bill “is a major victory for wildlife,” Beetham says.

The spending bill also repeats language from last year’s bill that denies funding for the inspection of horse slaughter plants. There haven’t been any such U.S. plants for nearly a decade, and the bill will prevent any from being opened, says Laura Bonar, the chief program and policy officer of Animal Protection of New Mexico, which calls such plants inhumane and bad for the environment. “I think it’s great that Congress saw the common sense regarding this issue.”

Words are more precious than money for NSF

Bill sheds restrictive language on research priorities

By Jeffrey Mervis

House Republicans have backed off from a controversial attempt to set funding levels for specific disciplines within the National Science Foundation (NSF). They have also agreed to give NSF officials a freer hand in deciding whether a research proposal benefits society.

The changes are contained in a budget agreement announced today that would give NSF a 1.6% increase, to $7.46 billion, in the 2016 fiscal year, which runs until 30 September. The added $119 million exceeds budget levels in separate bills that had stalled in the House and Senate. However, it falls well short of the 5.2% boost that President Barack Obama had requested in February for the agency.

The original NSF language in the spending agreement, which covers all federal agencies, was crafted by Representative John Culberson (R–TX), chair of the spending panel that oversees the foundation. That version would have made NSF spend 70% of its research dollars on just four of its six research directorates, cutting funding by double digits to the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. Culberson and his colleagues, including the chair of the House science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), had argued that the physical sciences, computing, biology, and engineering were more worthy of federal funding, an assertion that most scientific groups adamantly opposed. These groups also saw the House language as an unprecedented—and unwise—intrusion into the agency’s grantsmaking process.

Today’s budget agreement contains no mention of any research allocation requirements, thus implicitly endorsing the value of all disciplines. "NSF is very pleased with the strong Congressional endorsement contained in the Omnibus Appropriations Act of the Foundation’s policies and priorities that support the Nation's investment in science and engineering,” the agency said in a statement. “We are especially grateful for the removal of language that would have specified funding by scientific discipline.”

Dropping that language puts the geosciences back in the good graces of Congress. But the social and behavioral sciences do receive a slap on the wrists: None of the $99 million in additional research dollars can be allocated to that directorate.

A freeze is better than a steep cut, acknowledges Alan Kraut, executive director emeritus of the Association for Psychological Science. But such a “hollow victory” leaves much to be done, he adds. “The task for the year ahead,” Kraut says, “is to continue to demonstrate to those on the Hill what all of us in the community already know, that the nation’s most pressing problems—the violence of terrorism, economic well-being, learning and literacy, international negotiations, ethnic and minority group discrimination—all have at their core a social and behavioral base that simply cannot be addressed without the knowledge from the social and behavioral research that NSF supports.”

The new spending measure also drops language that would have tied NSF’s grantsmaking process to a contentious bill that passed the House earlier this year setting out policy guidance for the agency. The America COMPETES Act, a reauthorization of laws passed in 2007 and 2010, contained a “national interest” checklist that every NSF grant had to satisfy. Smith and others said the provision was intended to promote “transparency and accountability.” The new spending bill modifies that language but reminds NSF that its abstracts describing each award must “articulate how the project serves the national interest.”

In addition to the research bump, NSF received $14 million more than House and Senate panels had previously approved for educational activities. That’s still far below the administration’s request for a $97 million increase, however. Some of the money will be used to grow a scholarship program for students training in cybersecurity and to support the nation’s historically black colleges. A House provision requiring NSF to spend $30 million on an initiative for institutions with large Hispanic enrollments was dropped; NSF officials say existing programs are already reaching that target population.

NSF was also ordered to deliver a report within 180 days of the cost to complete and operate its troubled National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON). Legislators also asked NSF to provide “greater oversight” of NEON and other large new facilities.

  	The budget for DOE's science wing includes seed money for several new projects, including a major expansion of the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The budget for DOE's science wing includes seed money for several new projects, including a major expansion of the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory/FLICKR

Prospects brighten for Department of Energy research

Congress in rare agreement with White House request for Office of Science

By Adrian Cho

For the first time in years, Congress agrees with the White House on spending priorities for the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE). In fact, the new budget agreement gives DOE science $7 million more than was requested by the president in February, bumping its 2016 budget up by 5.5% to $5.347 billion.

"Honestly, in this environment, this is a pretty good set of numbers," says William Madia, vice president at Stanford University for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California—one of 10 Office of Science national labs. Paul Alivisatos, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, says, "Congress has given the nation an important holiday gift."

Energy research has been a perennial point of contention between the Obama administration and Republicans in the House of Representatives. But an October agreement that boosted overall levels for discretionary spending resulted in nearly $2 billion more for appropriators on the energy panels in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In turn, legislators agreed to funnel more than 10% of it into the Office of Science, rescuing the office from what would otherwise have been flat funding in 2016.

The concordance between the requested and finalized budget applies across most of the Office of Science's six research programs. Advanced scientific computing research, which includes the office's supercomputing efforts, would see its budget soar 15% to the $621 million requested. Similarly, the basic energy sciences program, which supports chemistry, condensed matter physics, and material sciences and runs DOE's big x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources, get a boost of 6.7% to $1.849 billion, as requested.

Spending on high-energy physics rises 3.8% to $795 million, $7 million more than requested. Biological and environmental research would grow by 2.9% to $609 million, $3 million shy of the requested amount. Similarly, nuclear physics climbs 3.7% over last year's budget to $617 million, $8 million less than requested.

Congress took issue with only one White House priority, fusion energy sciences. Fusion has been a political football in recent years because of the exploding cost of the U.S. contribution to ITER, the enormous international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France. The White House has proposed paying for the U.S. contribution to the multi-billion-dollar project by cutting the domestic fusion program. Senate appropriators, in particular Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), have tried to pull the U.S. out of ITER. In contrast, appropriators in the House of Representatives have stuck up for both ITER and the domestic program.

This year, the fusion story is more nuanced. The new budget contains $438 million for the program, a cut of 6.4% from last year, but 4% more than the White House requested. However, Congress has limited U.S. spending on ITER to $115 million, down from $150 million in 2015. It also requires DOE to report on reforms to ITER management in February and August.

Those numbers suggest that support in the House for the beleaguered project is starting to erode, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.: "I think the low number is a shot across the bow that says, 'You better get your act together in the coming months, or Alexander and Feinstein will get their way and the project will go away.'"

The fledging Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, whose mission is to quickly translate the best ideas from basic science into budding technologies, avoided falling victim to any partisan battles this year as well. Its budget is set to rise by 5.8% to $291 million, although that figure is $34 million below the president’s request. And DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, which does much of DOE's applied work on clean-energy research, would grow by 8.3% to $2.07 billion. That's well short of the $2.72 billion requested, but much higher than the $1.95 billion and $1.66 billion specified in the Senate and House markups of the original bills.

Although Congress mostly resisted the temptation to tinker with the budget details, it did give some specific projects a boost beyond the requested amount. The Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee will receive $10 million to design a long-sought second end station that would augment the facility's capabilities and user capacity. And design work on a massive new neutrino experiment to be headquartered at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, will be accelerated by getting $26 million rather than the requested $16 million.

Such a boost in new initiatives is sorely needed, observers say, especially after a 4% budget cut in 2013 put the brakes on new facilities. "There's no question that we've lost some ground," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge. "Hopefully, what you're seeing is a sign of willingness to invest more in exciting new projects." Others aren't as optimistic. "It's a good budget," Madia says. "But I don't see it as a signal for sea change."

Agreement reverses proposed cut in DOD basic research

Department-wide research adds 1.4%; DARPA drops by 1%

By David Malakoff

Spending on basic research within the Department of Defense (DOD) will rise by 1.4%, to $2.31 billion, under the spending bill. At the same time, the budget for the department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will dip by 1%, to $2.87 billion.

The total for DOD basic research, labeled 6.1 in DOD jargon, should cheer research advocates and university groups because it more than reverses a cut of 8.3% proposed by the White House in its 2016 request earlier this year. That cut, which the Association of American Universities had assailed as “inconceivable,” triggered a campaign by university lobbyists to convince legislators of the value of basic research to national security. Senate appropriators heeded the call, and the final total is even $13 million above their mark. (The House of Representatives panel had essentially accepted the administration’s low-ball figure as part of a larger push to hold down federal spending.)

The Pentagon is the nation’s major funder of basic research at universities in a number of fields, including computer science, mathematics, and some engineering disciplines. Some of that is funded by DARPA, which is tucked within the defense secretary’s office and independent of the research programs run by the three military services. Its 6.1 research program is barely 10% of the agency’s total, but it has been a key driver of essential technologies in several fields.—With reporting by Jeffrey Mervis.

Agreement puts Census Bureau back on track for planning 2020 headcount
Agency gets most of what it needs to test cost-saving approaches 

By Jeffrey Mervis

The omnibus spending agreement erases deep cuts made earlier this year to the U.S. Census Bureau that would have crippled planning for the 2020 census. The new funding level gives the agency, part of the Department of Commerce, a much better chance of conducting a less expensive and less burdensome decennial census.

In February the Obama administration requested $1.22 billion for the bureau’s periodic census program, which includes the decennial census and a major economic census conducted every 5 years. (The agency’s overall request was for $1.5 billion.) The 45% hike for periodics over the current $840-million level was aimed at ramping up for these cyclical activities.

But the whopping increase was an irresistible target for lawmakers looking to constrain federal spending and halt the seemingly inexorable rise in the price tag of each census. (The 2010 enumeration cost $13 billion.) The House of Representatives not only removed all funding for planning the 2020 census, but also dropped its budget below the 2015 level. It also savaged the American Community Survey (ACS), a monthly exercise that surveys 3.5 million housing units each year and that many conservatives view as an invasion of privacy.

The Census Bureau had requested $15 million above the $242 million needed to operate the ACS. The increase would let it test ways to ease the burden on census respondents and save money by a greater use of existing government databases, both lawmaker concerns. Instead, the House put a $200-million cap on spending for ACS, a level that would have precluded changes and forced the agency to actually reduce the survey’s sample size.

The Senate spending panel was a bit more sympathetic. It gave the periodics account a $22-million bump that still would have left it $361 million below the administration’s request. And it told Census officials to continue using ACS as a “testbed” for planned changes to the 2020 Census that the agency hopes will save $5 billion.

The final 2016 spending bill creates a much better path forward for the bureau. It provides $1.1 billion for the periodics program, a 31% increase that will let the agency maintain most of the momentum for the 2020 census. It also removes restrictions on how the bureau can spend that money, instead telling it to invest in “activities that have the greatest potential to reduce cost and risk for the 2020 Census, as well as activities to reduce survey respondent burden.”

“It’s the best-case scenario in a tight fiscal environment,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant to the Census Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for researchers and others who use Census data. “Census stakeholders are pleased that the Bureau will have the flexibility to [use] its best judgment” in allocating its budget.

Agency officials have 45 days to tell Congress how they plan to spend their 2016 budget. Lowenthal thinks the new levels will allow the agency to make progress on its twin goals of saving money and making its censuses more user-friendly. 

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