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Senate spending panel would squeeze science agencies but exceed Trump request

A Senate spending panel voted today to reduce funding in 2018 below current levels for several science agencies under its jurisdiction.

Even so, the move by the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee would erase most of the cuts that President Donald Trump requested next year for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The exception is NASA’s science program, which would get less under the Senate panel’s plan than the president has requested.

Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL), chair of the panel, blamed the tight proposed spending levels on the panel’s overall allocation of $53.4 billion for agencies under its jurisdiction, some $3.2 billion below 2017 levels. He said it forced lawmakers into making “difficult but responsible decisions.”

The allocation meant that less was available for science agencies, noted the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH). “I’m especially disappointed that this budget doesn’t keep NSF at 2017 levels,” she said in a short statement before the subcommittee vote. Instead, NSF’s overall budget of $7.472 billion would shrink by 2.1%, or $162 million.

Here are some top-line numbers for science agencies under the panel’s jurisdiction. Details will be released after the full Senate appropriations committee takes up the bill on Thursday. On 11 July the equivalent panel in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill covering the same agencies, but no vote by the entire House has been scheduled.

NASA

NASA would receive $19.5 billion, $124 million below current funding levels, and $437 million above the budget request by Trump. The agency’s science office would be cut by 3.4%, to $5.571 billion. That amount is $193 million below the current level, $140 million below Trump’s request, and $287 million less than the House mark. However, the panel rejected the White House’s plan to eliminate NASA’s education programs, voting instead to maintain its current level of $100 million.

NOAA and NIST

NOAA would get a 3% cut to $5.6 billion. That is about $800 million above the White House’s request for 2018, and about $600 million above the level set by the House. Funding details for NOAA’s science programs were not available.

NIST would receive $944 million, about 1%, or $10 million, below current spending. That contrasts sharply with the $229 million cut proposed by Trump, and the $89 million reduction in the House bill.

NSF

The Senate mark would bring NSF’s budget most of the way back from the 11% cut that Trump has proposed. But it would leave the agency $27 million below what House appropriators have approved.

However, help could be on the way for the agency. The chairman of the House panel, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), has told his colleagues repeatedly that boosting NSF’s research account is one of his top priorities if Congress approves a new spending agreement that boosts both civilian and military spending. Shaheen echoed Culberson’s wish, saying that such an agreement is essential for providing NSF and other research agencies with the funding they need to maintain U.S. leadership in science.

The subcommittee provided no details of funding levels for NSF’s $6 billion research account and its $900 million education programs. But a press release touted the panel’s support for building three new midsized research vessels, for which NSF has requested $105 million under a separate account for new large facilities. That stance contrasts with the wishes of its House colleagues, who zeroed out the request. But as a Gulf Coast senator, Shelby favors three ships because it would allow NSF to berth one of the ships in his region along with keeping one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.

Census Bureau

The apparently “good” number of $1.521 billion for the Census Bureau—$51 million above its current level and $24 million above the president’s request—hides the fact that agency officials have said previously that much more is needed in 2018 to stay on track for the 2020 decennial census, which represents more than half of its Census Bureau’s overall budget. And the agency’s fiscal situation is likely to get worse.

This spring the bureau announced that a new IT system to integrate all the working parts of the 2020 census will cost at least $309 million more than earlier estimates. And Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross has promised to give Congress a new overall estimate later this summer after saying he doesn’t trust the numbers put out from the previous administration for the census, which falls under his jurisdiction. As icing on the cake, Shelby reminded Census officials that he expects them to carry out the 2020 census for less than the 2010 census.