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House spending panel calls for cuts at NASA, NOAA, and NIST, small increase for NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a small increase, and NASA’s science programs would see a tiny cut, under a draft 2016 appropriations bill released today by a U.S. House of Representatives spending panel. But it would boost funding for NASA’s planetary science missions above the White House’s request.

The bill, released by the House commerce, justice, and science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee, also proposes cuts to science programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a cut in the overall budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The panel is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday. The subcommittee “markup” is the first step toward revising and sending the bill, which provides funding for the 2016 fiscal year that begins 1 October, to the full House.

Overall, the measure calls for providing $51.4 billion to the departments of Commerce and Justice, NSF, NASA, NIST and related agencies. That is $1.3 billion more than current spending for these programs, notes a subcommittee press release, but $661 million below the president’s request. The bill and release provide primarily top-line numbers; more detail will be provided in a committee report that will be publicly released once the bill is sent to the full appropriations panel.

Here are a few details, by agency:

National Science Foundation: NSF’s budget would grow by only $50 million—a tiny 0.7% increase over the current $7.345 billion. Not only would that be $329 million below the president’s request, but it’s also $200 million below the level authorized by the controversial America COMPETES Act that is expected to come before the full House of Representatives for a vote next week.

At the same time, some NSF activities are likely to be squeezed more than others. The subcommittee’s chair, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), has long been a big supporter of NSF’s education programs, although his bill is unlikely to be as generous as the $96 million boost requested by the Obama administration. And any increase for education could well come at the expense of NSF’s research directorates. NSF supporters will be watching closely to see if the subcommittee has sided with the House science committee in making severe cuts to research in the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. A requested 9% boost in operations, much of it to prepare for NSF’s pending move from Ballston to Alexandria, Virginia, is also vulnerable under a flat budget.

NASA: The subcommittee requests $18.529 billion overall for NASA, a $519 million increase over current levels, matching the president’s request. NASA’s science programs would see a $7 million cut, to roughly $5.2 billion; the White House had requested a $44 million increase. But the bill includes “funding above the President’s request for planetary science,” including $140 million for a mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter and a favorite project of Culberson’s. The White House had requested just $30 million for the Europa mission, which the bill says should launch by 2022. The subcommittee does not say which science programs may see cuts to pay for the planetary science funding.

NIST: NIST would get $855 million, $9 million below current levels and far below the White House request for a 29% increase to $1.12 billion. “[I]mportant core research activities are funded at $675 million,” the subcommittee release states. That would be a $1 million cut to NIST’s Scientific and Technical Research and Services program, and far below the White House’s request for $755 million.

NOAA: A $5.2 billion allotment would amount to a $274 million cut below current levels, and far less than the president’s request for $5.98 billion. The bill would maintain funding for major weather satellite programs, but the subcommittee provided few other details.

Census Bureau: A $1.1 billion budget would be $25 million above current spending, but $387 million below the request. “The additional funding is for research and planning activities as we approach the next decennial census,” according to the statement.

The Senate has yet to release a draft of its version of the CJS spending bill.