Senate Panel Backs Budget Increases for NSF, NASA

A Senate panel largely supported President Barack Obama's requested budget increases for several research agencies today as part of its markup of a $60 billion spending bill.

In a 15-minute session this morning, the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee voted out a bill that would fund the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the 2011 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. It trimmed $71 million from NSF's requested $498 million increase to $7.4 billion, while NASA and NOAA received their full requests, for $19 billion and $5.5 billion, respectively. NIST appears to have received a $23 million boost beyond its $918 million request.

Details of the spending plans will be released tomorrow when the full appropriations committee takes up the CJS bill. A sister panel in the House of Representatives adopted very similar budgets for those agencies, bolstering the hopes of science lobbyists that those levels could hold up in a final spending bill for 2011 that probably won't be adopted until after the November elections.

The panel's chair, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), noted that NASA posed the most difficult challenge. That's because many lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are opposed to the Administration's new plan for the space agency, under which the current Constellation program to go back to the moon would be replaced by an initiative to promote commercial space flight. The markup by the Senate panel provides $1.6 billion to extend space shuttle operations for another year and $3 billion for the development of a heavy-lift rocket and a next-generation crewed exploration vehicle starting next year. By contrast, the Administration's plan calls for NASA to end space shuttle flights by the end of this year and delay the development of a heavy-lift vehicle until at least 2015.

The slight reduction in NSF's overall 7.2% requested increase comes largely from its $6 billion research account, with the panel choosing to preserve the $892 million—a 2.5% hike—sought for education programs. Speaking after the markup, Mikulski said that NSF has taken "constructive steps" in the past year to address her concerns about its overall management practices, including the quality of the work environment, the use of rotators in senior positions, and its oversight of grants. She said the panel is reviewing NSF's proposal to merge three programs serving undergraduate minority students to make sure there are "no negative consequences" for increasing the number of minorities pursuing careers in science and engineering. She also warned NSF officials that "we won't tolerate any cost overruns" in building large, new research facilities.

*This item has been corrected. The committe trimmed $71 million from NSF's requested $498 million increase to $7.4 billion, not $6.4 billion.