A House of Representatives spending panel gives a boost to a proposed NASA mission to land a probe on the jovian moon Europa.

NASA/Kate Ramsayer

House lawmakers balk at most Trump science cuts in early bills

No. That’s the first official answer from lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives to President Donald Trump’s request to make deep budget cuts at several key science funding agencies.

House appropriators last week advanced a half-dozen 2018 budget bills that mostly ignore Trump’s proposed double-digit cuts, and chose to hold spending at many agencies roughly at current levels. Democrats even crowed about the bipartisan support for the resistance. “The chairman’s mark rejects some of the administration’s worst proposals,” said Representative José Serrano (D–NY), the top Democrat on the commerce, justice, and science (CJS) panel led by Representative John Culberson (R–TX), in a
29 June session to approve a bill that covers several science agencies.

The budget for the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE), for example, would hold steady at its 2017 level of $5.39 billion rather than plunge by 17%, according to a bill covering energy and water projects. The National Science Foundation (NSF) would come up 1.8% short of its current $7.47 billion budget, but that’s much better than the 11% cut that Trump proposed last May. In a third bill, the Department of Defense’s basic research account would remain flat at $2.28 billion, slightly above Trump’s request, and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would get a 6% boost to $3.07 billion, slightly below the White House request.

NASA’s science programs would see a 1% boost, to $5.9 billion, fueled in part by a $220 million increase for a planned multibillion-dollar mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Trump had requested a 1% cut to NASA’s science office. The House spending panel also rejected a similar proposed reduction in NASA’s overall budget of $19.7 billion, instead giving it a record $19.9 billion.

Not all the news was good. NASA’s earth science budget would shrink by 11%, or $217 million, to $1.7 billion. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), funding for climate science would drop by 19%, according to Serrano, who provided no further details. Overall, the House bill would impose a 14%, $710 million cut to NOAA’s current $5.7 billion budget. Representative Nita Lowey (D–NY), the top Democrat on the full appropriations committee, said the cuts are “further proof that the Republican majority doesn’t take the science of climate change seriously.”

DOE’s $300-million-a-year Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) would disappear, in line with Trump’s request. NSF would retain current funding levels for its six research directorates, but Culberson’s panel rejected its $105 million request to start building the first two of three new research ships. (However, Senate appropriators are almost certain to restore the money for the ships in their version of the bill, continuing a battle between the two houses over the project. Senators have also signaled support for ARPA-E.)

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, scientific programs would face a 4% cut rather than Trump’s proposed 13% reduction, although House appropriators balked at Trump’s plan to eliminate its Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which helps domestic companies. The Census Bureau would receive a 4% boost for its array of censuses and surveys, the same amount Trump has requested. But demographers say that amount is woefully short of what the agency needs to finish preparations for the decennial head count of the U.S. population in 2020.

We’re counting on a bigger overall budget deal that hopefully will give us a little more room. … But until we get that, it’s going to be tough.

Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

All of those numbers, however, come with major caveats. The Senate needs to come up with its own spending bills. Also, Congress as a whole has yet to adopt an overall 2018 spending blueprint, called a budget resolution, which lawmakers use to set how much money is allocated to each of the 12 appropriations bills. Republicans are eager to finalize a resolution because, under the Senate’s arcane rules, it would ease the way to passing tax reform legislation later this year.

Absent that resolution, legislators are supposed to adhere to a 2011 budget deal that sets annual spending caps for both civilian and military programs. The two sectors are supposed to move in lockstep. But Republicans have proposed an increase in military spending that could top $60 billion, while shrinking civilian spending by $4 billion. Many Democrats would be happy to boost military spending, too, but only if Congress scraps the caps and approves a big hike for civilian programs as well.

Culberson says that such a deal would let him increase funding for some programs now being squeezed in his bill. “We’re counting on a bigger overall budget deal that hopefully will give us a little more room to take care of some of these important things,” he told his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. “But until we get that, it’s going to be tough.”

Given that jockeying, and the White House’s apparent hostility to research spending, many research lobbyists have embraced a “flat is the new up” mentality for science budgets. That approach runs counter to the community’s traditional push for steadily growing budgets, but it may be more realistic in the current political climate.

Many important numbers are pending. Lawmakers have yet to release spending bills covering the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—which accounts for about half of all civilian basic research dollars—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Trump has targeted all of those agencies for large cuts. But lawmakers have strongly condemned the NIH and CDC cuts at recent budget hearings, raising hopes that both agencies will escape the ax. The outlook for EPA, which has fewer fans on the Republican side, might be grimmer.

Republican leaders want to finish these and other House bills before the August recess. But the Senate is unlikely to move as quickly. Most observers expect current spending levels to be extended well into the 2018 year, which begins 1 October, before Congress reaches a final agreement. That means researchers may have a long wait before they learn the fate of their favorite federal funding source.