Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

Budget 2017: Read our roundup of Obama's science funding requests

ScienceInsider was following the numbers today, as the White House rolled out its fiscal year 2017 budget request. Here are some dispatches from the front lines of the budget wars.

NIH gambles on mandatory funding to keep afloat

What at first glance looks like modest good news for National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the president’s budget—a $825 million increase—is instead drawing dismay and a lot of head scratching. That’s because the administration wants to pay for the increase, as well as $1 billion of NIH’s existing budget, by using so-called mandatory funds that will likely be a hard sell in Congress.

“We’re extremely concerned that NIH’s base budget is being cut,” says Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Making up the difference with mandatory funds “is just very problematic and complicated,” he says.

The budget proposal would give NIH $33.1 billion, a 2.6% raise over 2016. The money would include $680 million for Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot; $100 million more for the Precision Medicine Initiative’s 1-million person cohort study, for a total of $230 million; and $45 million in added funds for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. But the new money for these presidential priorities would come out of so-called mandatory funds, which require Congress to establish a dedicated funding stream, often by selling assets such as the communications spectrum. Moreover, the proposal would cut NIH’s existing budget by $1 billion from regular appropriations process and make up for it with mandatory funding.

Even if that money came through, aside from the three favored programs, nearly all of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers except the National Cancer Institute would be getting a 0% increase. The number of research grants funded would rise by 600 to 36,440, but new and competing would drop by 807 grants to 9946. As a result, the agency expects the success rate, or the portion of reviewed grants that receive funding, to drop from 19.2% to 17.5%.

NIH director Francis Collins says that the administration had no choice about cutting NIH’s regular appropriations and providing flat funding to most institutes, because spending caps agreed to by Congress and the administration last year left “very little breathing room.” He also defended the concept of using mandatory funding for NIH, which would come in part from Medicare savings. He notes that last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill called 21st Century Cures that would have given NIH nearly $9 billion in new funding over 5 years from mandatory funds by selling off some of the nation’s petroleum reserve. “It’s not a totally foreign concept,” Collins says.

But advocacy groups don’t share his optimism. Lawmakers are likely to oppose mandatory funding for NIH because it overrides the regular appropriations process and can dry up after a few years,  Retzlaff says. “It’s a pretty big gamble” to expect that Congress will go along with the new mandatory funding, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. And she notes that compared to other science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, which retained its base budget from discretionary appropriations, “it looks like NIH got the short end of the broom handle,” Zeitzer says.

How things will turn out in the end is anyone’s guess. But given Congress’s longstanding bipartisan support for NIH, lawmakers are unlikely slash its budget, Zeitzer notes. Instead, she says, “I think this is the classic [move of], let’s propose a cut to a popular program knowing Congress would never stand for it.”  —Jocelyn Kaiser

Nearly-flat FDA request, topped off with a moonshot

The President’s request would keep funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) roughly flat. The requested $2.74 billion--not including anticipated user fees, collected from companies submitting products for FDA review-- represents an increase just shy of 1%. But as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s recently announced cancer moonshot, FDA would get $75 million to create a virtual Oncology Center of Excellence, where reviewers and regulatory scientists across the agency would provide advice to the National Cancer Institute to help develop new cancer vaccines, diagnostics, and combinations of drug treatments. 

But the new center would use so-called mandatory funds, which need a specific revenue source, so Congress would also need to find a way to pay for it, and “we don’t take it for granted that it’s going to happen,” says Steven Grossman, deputy executive director at the Alliance for a Stronger FDA in Washington, D.C. He adds that this moonshot money is “still only a necessary infusion of money into one part of FDA’s initiatives,” and he says many others will still suffer under a flat budget.

The request also nearly doubles funding for FDA’s role in the President’s precision medicine initiative to $4.4 million, much of which will be used to up a new system for gathering clinical data from medical device manufacturers and healthcare providers on which devices are best suited for which patients.-- Kelly Servick

CDC funding dips, but antimicrobial resistance effort going strong

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would see a slight dip under the proposed 2017 budget – down 3.6% to $6.95 billion. But the proposal continues to ramp up investment in the antimicrobial resistance initiative the White House announced in last year’s request, which will  establish an outbreak surveillance network to track drug-resistant strains, and set up state-level resistance prevention programs. Beyond the $160 million approved for the initiative by appropriators for 2016, a new $200 million proposed today would allow the agency to set up such programs in all 50 states, explains Jonathan Nurse, director of government relations at the Infectious Diseases Society of America in Washington, D.C. However, Nurse says it’s unfortunate that the White House seems to have backed away from an action plan release in December to combat multidrug resistant tuberculosis –  the budget offers no new funding for TB efforts.-- Kelly Servick

Climate research a favorite in EPA science request

President Barack Obama's proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget for 2017 seeks a modest boost in funding for research and development and other science and technology programs, as well as a healthy increase for the agency's air and climate programs in the wake of the Paris climate agreement.

The request would boost funding for EPA's science and technology efforts — which include research and development, technology grants and certification programs — to $754.2 million. That's a 2.7% increase from the $734.6 million that Congress approved last year, but a 1.9% decrease from the $769 million that the president requested in 2016. Within science and technology, funding for EPA's research and development programs has steadily declined in recent years, both in terms of what Congress has approved and what Obama has requested. This year, however, the president seeks a very modest hike in R&D funding to $530 million, from the $528 million approved by Congress.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, on a conference call with reporters, said the agency was continuing its recent push for funding increases for research into computational toxicology, "a cutting edge way to study chemical risk and exposure faster and less expensive than ever before." EPA called for a 58% hike in funding for that program last year, from $21.4 million to $33.8 million, but Congress kept its funding flat instead. This year, the president's budget seeks a more modest 20% boost to $25.7 million. McCarthy’s comments come as EPA ramps up its plans to use computational tools, such as high-throughput screening assays and computational modeling, to screen chemicals for their potential to disrupt the body's hormones.

Meanwhile, the EPA is requesting $1.13 billion for its air and climate programs budget, a 6.4% hike from the $1.06 billion that Congress gave it last year. That would include a $25 million increase to help states implement the EPA's limits on carbon-dioxide emissions for power plants. McCarthy cited the role of the climate regulations in helping the international climate agreement come together in Paris last December. "We have promises to keep, and in the next fiscal year we’re going to build on those promises and make more progress," McCarthy said in arguing for the funding boost.

The Republican-dominated Congress has been unfriendly toward the Obama administration's climate policies, however, including the power-plant regulations, and this year is likely to be no exception. In a statement, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the Senate environment committee, chastised Obama for focusing on climate change in the budget at the expense of causes such as water infrastructure. Inhofe — arguably the most vocal lawmaker to reject man-made climate change — said he would focus on pushing for a budget to ensure that EPA would fulfill its "core mission." – Puneet Kollipara

A 4% solution for DOE science

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science would get $5.672 billion under the request, a 4.2% increase over existing levels.

The White House is also asking Congress to create a new $100 million fund, to be awarded competitively to university researchers, which would be paid for through a dedicated mandatory funding stream, not the usual budgeting process. The administration also wants to use mandatory spending to create an “ARPA-E Trust,” which would provide $1.85 billion over 5 years to the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) to take on large energy technology projects.The White House also wants to give ARPA-E a 20% boost to $350 million in 2017.

Such mandatory spending proposals are likely to face opposition in Congress, however, because they represent spending above caps agreed to in a budget deal last year, and reduce lawmakers’ control over the annual budget process.

Within the Office of Science, the numbers for the six major programs look like this:

  • Basic energy sciences – 4.76% boost to $1.937 billion.
  • Biological and environmental sciences – 8.7% increase to $662 million.
  • Fusion – 9.1% cut to $398 million.
  • High energy physics – 2.89% boost to $818 million.
  • Nuclear physics – 3% increase to $636 million.
  • Advanced computing – 6.8% increase to $663 million.

The budget includes $125 million for the U.S. contribution to the ITER fusion power project in France, $10 million more than the 2016 level. ITER is experiencing extensive construction delays, and some members of Congress have been critical of the project.

The budget also proposes creating up to 10 new “Regional Clean Energy Innovation Partnerships,” centers that the request says “will engage universities, industries, investors, labs and others to work toward technology-neutral clean energy breakthroughs that support regional needs.”

Many Republicans in Congress have criticized the administration’s focus on clean energy programs, arguing they represent an unnecessary government intrusion into energy markets.

Darts and praise: Research groups and lawmakers react to the budget request

Research and university groups are expressing dissatisfaction with aspects of the budget request, especially its reliance on mandatory funding—a mechanism that Congress is likely to reject—to pay for spending increases at many science agencies.

Meanwhile, reaction from lawmakers in Congress is predictably split along party lines.

“[T]his budget does not live up to the President’s long-time commitment to funding research,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities in Washington, D.C., in a statement. “The budget sets aspirational goals for research funding, which we commend, but, other than energy research, the proposed investments rely on mandatory funding streams that Congress will not seriously consider.”

“Moreover, the President’s budget proposes deep cuts in basic research at the Department of Defense,” Rawlings said. “This abandonment of the Administration’s earlier commitment to basic Defense research suggests a lack of understanding that tomorrow’s innovations to keep our armed forces the best in the world depend on today’s basic research.”

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), in Rockville, Maryland, also expressed dismay about the numbers for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

“Frankly, this budget does little to capitalize on the enormous bipartisan support for the NIH in Congress,” said ASBMB Public Affairs Director Benjamin Corb. “To propose a funding level that is unable to sustain the biomedical research enterprise is surprising given the president’s consistent, strong support for the agency.”

The group is “disappointed” that the request “appears to provide a $1 billion increase to the NIH,” the statement notes, but also calls for a $1 billion cut in the agency’s regular discretionary appropriation. The group objects to the White House’s request that Congress make up the difference by dedicating new sources of mandatory spending.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the budget request “unrealistic” in a statement. “Investments in science and technology have clear benefits for Americans,” Smith said. “But the president continues to focus on costly, ineffective energy subsidies and taxes, like a new $10.25 per barrel federal tax on oil.”

Smith was also critical of the request for NASA. “This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” he said, also noting that “at the same time this proposal shrinks space exploration priorities within NASA’s budget, it disproportionately increases Earth Science accounts to more than $2 billion—a 70% increase since 2007. This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible.”

Not surprisingly, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the panel’s top Democrat, had a different take. “As in past years, the President’s Budget will help ensure that the U.S. can compete in a 21st Century global economy and solidify America’s place as a scientific and technological leader,” she said in a statement. “I am pleased by so many of the R&D, innovation, and education provisions in this budget. From the investment in Mission Innovation, a proposal to double federal investment in clean energy research and development, to the Cybersecurity National Action Plan, a multi-faceted plan to strengthen the Nation’s cybersecurity, to the Climate Action Plan, the President is proposing initiatives to help us tackle the major issues we face such as climate change, energy security, and cyber threats.”

NASA’s budget drops, but science is spared cuts

The request proposes that NASA get $19.025 billion, a 1.3% drop from levels enacted by Congress this past December. But the science mission directorate, with a $5.601 billion request, would sit essentially unchanged from the $5.589 billion appropriated by Congress last year.

One reason for the apparent drop is that the administration’s NASA request—which is about $500 million above what the White House requested in 2016—was essentially set in stone by the time that Congress decided on a relatively cushy 2016 spending level for the agency, says Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.  “I don’t think the White House is going out of its way saying, ‘We’ve got to cut NASA,'” he says. “[White House requests] are showing steady progress on their own.” But “Congress came out with a very good number late in the game,” he adds, making today’s request look less generous.

At the agency, there is one prominent new start:  The request includes $90 million to develop a space habitat for astronauts, which would sit near the moon. It would provide a destination beyond low-Earth orbit for astronauts, and a use for the agency’s deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System—and help the agency demonstrate progress towards sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. “There’s a bipartisan consensus emerging around this plan and timetable,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who spoke at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia on Tuesday as a part of the budget rollout.

Another development within the human side of NASA is the continued support for the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission, which gets $66.7 million. It would in 2023 send a robot to fetch an asteroid and bring it closer to Earth so that astronauts could study it.

Within the science division, some familiar dynamics are playing out. The White House requested $1.519 billion for the planetary science division—a drop of nearly 7% from enacted levels. “That’s just been the pattern now, 5 years in a row,” Dreier says. The White House may be setting a low target for planetary because in recent years, Congress, with planetary boosters such as John Culberson (R-TX)  leading key spending panels, has always plumped the planetary budget back up.

The White House wants to continue work on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which harbors a habitable ocean under an icy crust. But Dreier says the $50 million asked for by the White House is much less than the $175 million that Congress gave in December—which probably means that the mission won’t be able to launch in the early 2020s, unless lawmakers provide more money.

Where the White House tends to dump on NASA’s planetary science program, the reverse is true for the agency’s Earth science division. It would get a 5.8% increase, to $2.032 billion. Much of that boost -- $131 million -- would go to move LandSat 9, the latest model in the longstanding Earth observing satellite system, up to a 2021 launch. But Republican-controlled Congress rarely appropriates as much to Earth science as the White House would like.

NASA’s heliophysics division would also get a big 7.5% boost over enacted levels, rising to $700 million. The astrophysics division would get $782 million, a 7% rise. It includes $90 million to support the 2025 launch for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which will study the mysterious dark energy force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. The $569 million requested to develop the James Webb Space Telescope for a 2018 launch is kept in a separate category.

As with other science agencies, the White House wants to fund some NASA programs with so-called mandatory spending. Nearly $750 million of the total request would come through mandatory mechanisms.  Within the science division, the White House assumes that $298 million of the $5.6 billion request will come from the new mandatory sources of spending. That’s an unlikely scenario given Congress’s current makeup. —Eric Hand

Obama taps mandatory spending for most of NSF increase

The Obama administration has requested a $500-million increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF). But $400 million comes from a funding source that the Republican Congress is unlikely to even recognize, much less embrace. Such is the budgetary legerdemain of a presidency in its last year in office.

The requested 6.7% increase for NSF, to $7.964 billion, includes money from both discretionary and mandatory spending streams. The first is the pot that Congress appropriates each year, and a budget agreement struck last December puts a cap on that amount. Only $100 million of NSF’s requested increase draws from that discretionary source; alone, it would represent a 1.3% increase in the agency's budget. The rest of NSF’s increase rests on tapping revenues from the sale of various federal assets, a dubious prospect given pledges by conservative legislators to shrink rather than grow overall government spending.

Within NSF’s overall budget, its $6-billion research account would grow by only 0.8% if Congress limits itself to the discretionary spending pot, rather than the 6.5% sought by the full request. NSF’s $880-million education directorate would get a 2.1% boost via discretionary spending, rather than the 8.3% in the full request. In contrast, NSF’s entire 13% increase for agency operations, a jump of $43 million, would come out of discretionary spending.

The impact of having two accounts within the budget is even more dramatic when one looks at the six research directorates. Only engineering would get a boost via discretionary spending, a rise of nearly 3%. The budgets of the others—biology, computing, geoscience, math/physical sciences, and social/behavioral sciences—would essentially stay at current levels.

With the addition of mandatory spending, however, the biology directorate could grow its $100-million emerging frontiers program by nearly half.

NSF’s large facilities construction account contains no mandatory spending. But it does have a proposed new start—the first of two regional-class research vessels. NSF has requested $106 million to begin building the ships, which it estimates will cost a total of $255 million. If all goes well, science operations would begin in 2021. —Jeffrey Mervis


A first look at the 2017 request

The budget is out (you can find it here). Here’s a first look.

Overall, it includes a $152 billion request for all federal research and development (R&D) spending, a 4% boost over 2016 levels, according to the Research and Development chapter in the budget’s Analytical Perspectives section.

Within that total, spending on basic research would rise by 3%, or $975 million, to $34.485 billion.

The White House says it would pay for some of the increase through so-called mandatory spending, which is not subject to the usual annual appropriations process that determines so-called discretionary spending. Instead, Congress must approve mandatory spending by dedicating specific revenue streams—such as from the sale of government-owned spectrum, or oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—to specific programs. Lawmakers in Congress are often loath to approve such funding mechanisms, however, because it gives them less control over annual spending.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the government’s largest research agency, would get $33.1 billion, about a $1 billion increase (from both mandatory and discretionary spending).

The White House is proposing about $900 million in new discretionary and mandatory spending at three of the largest basic research agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the laboratories of the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Together, the three agencies would get $14.6 billion, or about a 7% increase over 2016 levels.

NSF would get a 6.7% increase, or $500 million, to $7.964 billion. But only $100 million of that increase, or 1.3%, would be from discretionary spending.

The budget for NASA’s science office would remain flat, at $5.6 billion.

The budget calls for a 9% cut to basic science spending at the Department of Defense (DOD), to $2.115 billion.  DOD is a major source of basic science funding for mathematics, computer science and engineering research. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would get an increase of roughly $130 million, to about $3 billion.

Here's our preview from yesterday: 

The White House request will  honor a 2-year spending agreement that he and Congress embraced this past December. The pact set a spending ceiling that was intended to usher in a temporary truce in the annual budget wars. But that truce appears to be short-lived: The White House will be asking legislators to boost research activities in many areas through the use of spending mechanisms that sidestep the normal appropriations process. And that request isn’t likely to win much support from the Republican majority.

The carrot in the December agreement was an additional $50 billion in the current (2016) fiscal year for discretionary spending, a $1.1 trillion pot that covers all federally funded research. But the agreement was front-loaded: It stipulates essentially flat funding for the fiscal year 2017 that starts in October.

Buyer’s remorse set in as soon as the ink was dry. Fiscally conservative Republicans would like their leaders to tear up the agreement and return to a 2011 law that would lower the 2017 spending ceiling by $30 billion as part of a 10-year effort to shrink the federal deficit. Obama and many Democrats would like Congress to go in the opposite direction, raising the caps for 2017 and beyond, and finding ways to pay for additional spending on research, infrastructure, education, and many other areas.

Obama made such a case for higher spending last year in his 2016 request. But many agencies ended up with far less than what the White House had requested. Still, the extra money from the budget deal paved the way for healthy increases at many research agencies, led by a $2-billion boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Although agencies won’t disclose their detailed budget requests until tomorrow, Obama has already announced several research-related initiatives. They depend heavily on two funding mechanisms outside the discretionary account funded by general revenues. One, called mandatory spending, would use dollars designated from the sale of a specific government asset, like the strategic petroleum reserve or the communications spectrum. The other, called designated emergency spending, is outside the scope of the budget agreement and doesn’t require any offsetting reductions in other government programs.

 A $755 million boost in cancer research at NIH and the Food and Drug Administration has gotten the most attention. But the White House has also touted its desire to spend $400 million more a year over 10 years for research on self-guided cars and clean transportation, a $120 million effort over 5 years at the National Science Foundation to train more computer science teachers and help more students learn programming, a doubling of spending on competitive grants for agricultural research (to $700 million), and hundreds of millions of dollars to address the threat posed by the Zika virus and start developing a vaccine. These initiatives would join areas that the administration has previously flagged for rapid growth, including precision medicine, research to combat antimicrobial drug resistance, and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative.

To be sure, the media are already calling Obama’s last budget a doorstop, implying that congressional Republicans are planning to ignore it and craft their own spending measure. The final agreement is likely to be deferred until after the November election, if not until after a new president is inaugurated on 20 January 2017.