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First look: New U.S. spending deal a mixed bag for science

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) appear to be among the winners—relatively speaking—in a spending deal reached Tuesday night by lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, with both agencies receiving modest funding boosts. But research budgets at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy would remain flat.

The legislation also includes provisions that would continue efforts to open a national nuclear waste dump in Nevada, prevent the Obama administration from moving ahead with new environmental rules aimed at strengthening protections for small streams and wetlands, and bar adding the sage grouse to the endangered species list.

The $1.013 trillion package sets spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year, which began 1 October. Lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on 2015 spending levels in September, however, so the government has been operating on a temporary measure that has frozen spending at 2014 levels. The temporary measure expires on 12 December, and both bodies are now moving to vote on the new spending agreement later this week. It is expected to pass.

Below are highlights for some key science agencies drawn from summaries prepared by the House appropriations committee. Come back to ScienceInsider on Wednesday for more details.

NIH: The nation’s largest research funder gets $30 billion, $150 million above the fiscal year 2014 level. Advocates for biomedical research note that the small increase won’t allow agency spending to keep pace with inflation. “Congress has missed a major opportunity to fund advances in science and medicine that improve our nation’s health and economic outlook,” said Carrie Wolinetz, a lobbyist with the Association of American Universities and president of United for Medical Research, a coalition that advocates for biomedical research funding, in a statement. “Sustained increases to the NIH budget are necessary to close our nation’s innovation deficit—the widening gap between the current medical research funding levels and the investment required to ensure the U.S. remains the world’s innovation leader.”

Department of Energy's Office of Science: The nation’s biggest funder of physical science research would get $5.1 billion, the same as 2014. Lawmakers rejected cuts proposed by the White House to domestic fusion energy research programs, and a Senate proposal to cancel funding for the ITER fusion project under construction in France. The bill retains language, however, making much of the ITER funding contingent on the project’s willingness to make management reforms.

NASA: NASA will get about $18 billion overall, an increase of $364 million. One big winner is the space science program, which would grow to $5.245 billion, $94 million more than the 2014 level of $5.151 billion. The White House had requested a 3.5% cut to $4.972 billion.

NSF: NSF received a 2.4% increase, to $7.344 billion. That amount is $89 million above the president’s request, although it falls short of the $222 million boost that the House of Representatives had approved in May. Within that total, NSF’s six research directorates would grow by $125 million, to $5.93 billion, and its education directorate would rise by $20 million, to $866 million. NSF also gets two-thirds of the $40 million increase it had sought in operating expenses, most of which will go toward its planned move to a new building in northern Virginia.

National Institute of Standards and Technology: NIST is funded at $864 million, which is $14 million above the fiscal year 2014 enacted level.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): The bill provides $5.4 billion for NOAA, $126 million above 2014, and includes funding to keep several troubled weather satellites on track.

Ebola: Efforts to combat the virus get about $5.2 billion in emergency spending (which is not counted as part of the regular budget), some $800 million less than the White House had requested. Included is $25 million for the Food and Drug Administration, some of which may be used to expedite testing and approval of human drugs and vaccines.

Other provisions:

  • Language restricting an Obama administration clean water plan to regulate farm ponds and irrigation ditches in agricultural areas.

  • A ban on funding for the Army Corps to change the definition of “fill material.”

  • Funding for safety studies of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

  • No funding for the “Green Climate Fund,” an international effort to finance climate change efforts in developing nations.

  • A continuation of a ban on funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

  • A ban on adding the sage grouse, a grassland species in the western United States, to the endangered species list. Critics said a listing could cripple the oil and gas industry and private landowners. "It is outrageous that Congress would include such a grossly irresponsible rider," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president of Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. "There are more than 350 species of conservation concern in the Sagebrush Sea, of which 60 are listed or candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act – walking away from the sage-grouse for political expediency could condemn many of these other species to the same imperiled fate down the road."

To see all of our stories on the 2015 budget, click here.