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Congress moves to protect Pentagon’s basic research spending at universities

DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Congress moves to protect Pentagon’s basic research spending at universities

Proposed cuts to basic research conducted by universities for the U.S. military would be erased under budget legislation approved yesterday by the U.S. House of Representatives. But the Pentagon’s overall basic research accounts would still shrink by about 3%, or $60 million, to $2.1 billion in 2015 under a defense authorization bill approved Thursday on a 300 to 119 vote. That cut is smaller than the 7% cut proposed by the White House earlier this year.

Lawmakers reversed proposed cuts to Pentagon programs that fund basic research at universities, however, bumping up those programs by 6% or more. The reversal comes as a relief to many in academia, which has become increasingly reliant on Pentagon research funding. About one-half of the Pentagon’s basic research spending, or $1 billion annually, is distributed to university researchers. And certain fields, including engineering, computer science, math, and physics, receive up to one-half of their research dollars from the Department of Defense (DOD). Military research officials had estimated that the proposed cuts would mean about 1500 fewer grants to academic institutions.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate had expressed concerns about that outcome, and earlier this week they acted in the massive defense authorization bill. It details how DOD should spend some $585 billion in the 2015 fiscal year, which began 1 October. Although the bill does not actually appropriate the funding—that is done in separate legislation—it typically dictates appropriations levels.

Overall, the Pentagon’s core basic research accounts would fall to $2.108 billion, 3% below the 2014 level and 4% above the president’s request. Within that total:

  • The Army’s basic research account—known as the 6.1 budget line in Washington parlance—would grow 2% to $444.2 million; the White House had proposed a 3% reduction.

  • The Navy’s 6.1 account would fall 4% to $596.3 million; the request called for a 7% cut.

  • The Air Force’s basic research spending would fall 10% to $474.5 million; the request called for a 13% cut.

  • DOD-wide basic research would grow 1% to $592.5 million; the White House had requested a 4% cut.

Programs dedicated to university research saw gains. The Air Force’s academic programs will grow to $89.8 million in 2015 from $79.4 million, a 13% jump. The Navy’s jump to $133.9 million from $112.8 million (plus 19%), and the Air Force’s to $147.1 million from $138.3 million (a 6% bump).

The authorization bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to approve it. Congress is expected to complete work on a 2015 spending bill later this month.

*Correction, 5 December, 6:38 p.m.: As a result of a spreadsheet error, this article incorrectly reported an increase in the Pentagon's basic research budget for 2015. In fact, overall spending on basic research would fall by 3%. We regret the error.