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U.S. lawmakers propose scaling back Pentagon science cuts—slightly

When President Barack Obama proposed a hefty 6.9% cut to the U.S. military’s basic research programs earlier this year, many academic science lobbyists winced. Today, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill that wouldn’t cut quite as deep—just 6.4%—but that’s not doing much to dull the pain.

“We are dismayed by the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense bill,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Association of American Universities (AAU), in a statement. “We criticized the President’s budget for its 6.9-percent cut; this bill provides only a modest improvement.”

Universities receive some 10% of their federal research dollars from the Department of Defense (DOD). In particular, academic scientists get about one-half of the roughly $2 billion the Pentagon spends on basic research, known as the “6.1” budget line in DOD parlance. Overall, DOD provides about one-half of the research funding in many engineering fields, one-third in computer science, and one-fifth in math and physics.

In recent years, Obama administration budget planners had largely shielded 6.1 spending from cuts despite a downsizing military. But the White House signaled that wasn’t going to be possible in the 2015 fiscal year that begins 1 October. It proposed cutting overall DOD spending on science and technology 5.5%, to $11.51 billion, with basic research taking a bigger hit. It's "not that we don't like university research. We love university research," Alan Shaffer, a top DOD research official, told Congress earlier this year. "But given the constraints … we wanted to push more money" into more applied projects that are closer to fruition, he said.

Shaffer estimated the proposed $150 million reduction in DOD's core basic science budget "will cut about 1500 grants nationwide, give or take," assuming an average of $100,000 per grant. "That's a lot of university grants that are coming out."

Today’s House panel vote doesn’t offer much relief, which leaves AAU’s Rawlings and others hoping the full House or the Senate will intercede to cancel more of the cut. They warn that national security could be at stake. “The basic research DOD has conducted since World War II has consistently made our nation’s military the world’s best equipped, most technologically advanced force,” Rawlings said. “Congress should approve this kind of cut only if it wishes to erode our armed forces’ future technological advantages.”

The research funding is part of a larger $491 billion measure funding all Pentagon programs. The bill must still be approved by the full House and reconciled with the U.S. Senate’s version. No final action is expected until after the November elections.