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NSF Gets 1% Trim in 2011, but New Budget Battle Looms

The figure may be $563 million below its 2011 request, and a cool $1 billion south of where the Obama Administration wants the National Science Foundation's budget to be in 2012. But NSF will be able to preserve most of its programs after applying the $65-million cut to its current budget that is part of the deal struck last weekend between Congress and the White House.

The agreement gives NSF an overall budget of $6.81 billion for fiscal year 2011, which runs until 30 September. Its research account was trimmed by $53 million, to $5.51 billion, and its education directorate saw $12 million shaved from its $873 million budget in 2010. That amounts to a reduction of 1%, rather than the administration's planned increase of 7.6%.

As a result, NSF officials expect to make 134 fewer awards and support 1500 fewer researchers, students, teachers, and technical support personnel than the agency did last year. The shortfall from the president's 2011 request, they calculate, is 1450 awards and 16,700 researchers, students, teachers, and technical support personnel.

A 2010 law puts NSF's budget on a 10-year doubling track by 2016, which in the current fiscal climate seems a real stretch. Even so, NSF's fiscal outlook is much brighter than it was 2 months ago. That's when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a 2011 budget that would have lowered NSF's budget by $300 million, to $6.57 billion. Last month a Senate appropriations panel marked up a spending bill that would have given NSF $6.85 billion. Although that measure was defeated on the floor, the number is very close to the tally in this week's final agreement.

What happened? Science lobbyists say they don't know what turned the tide. But they are certainly thankful for the support that Congress showed for the nation's only agency whose sole mission is funding basic research across the scientific and engineering disciplines. "I can't attribute it," says Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society. "There's a recognition [of the value of science] in the Senate, and we know the administration has really fought for these programs throughout."

Tobin Smith, of the Association of American Universities, also points to Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the House spending panel that oversees NSF and several other science agencies. "You can't discount the role that Frank Wolf played in helping the agency," says Smith. He and Lubell surmise that House Republicans were more passionate about cutting environmental and energy programs, cutting funding to pay for the enforcement of regulations, and trimming infrastructure spending than taking an axe to science. So in negotiations, suggests Lubell, keeping science agencies funded was more important to Democrats than cutting them was to Republicans.

Next up is the 2012 budget, and Lubell foresees tough sledding for NSF's proposed massive increase. "The lion's share [of the cuts] are going to be felt by NSF," he predicts. "We'll see whether the same people who rose to the challenge for the 2011 budget come through again."