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House budget plan would rearrange and restrict federal research portfolio

If an influential congressional budget committee has its way, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) could be eliminated, and many research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) would be sharply curtailed.

Those startling changes in federal research policy are part of a blueprint for spending that was released yesterday by the budget committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. A faction of House Republicans has blocked approval of the so-called annual budget resolution—which does not have the force of law but is symbolically potent—because they think it calls for too much spending. Specifically, they have objected to a $1.07 trillion ceiling for discretionary spending in 2017, part of a December 2015 budget agreement between Congress and the White House.

So it’s not clear whether Republican leaders in the House will be able to gain enough support to pass any budget resolution. In addition, the Republican-controlled Senate has put an indefinite hold on its work on a budget resolution.

Those developments mean a budget resolution, which sets spending guidelines for the appropriations panels that dole out real money, may not be in the cards this year. Even so, some of the language in a 336-page report accompanying the bill would inflame leaders of the U.S. scientific community, as well as run counter to the views of the Obama administration and most Democrats.

The biggest potential shift from the status quo would be breaking up the $9 billion commerce department. DOC is one of the least-known, and most unloved, of all federal agencies. But it nonetheless oversees a huge scientific portfolio that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Census Bureau. Under the heading “options worthy of consideration,” the budget committee suggests moving NOAA to the Department of Interior, placing NIST within NSF, and assigning the Census Bureau, including the massive decennial census, to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another commerce agency, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, would become an independent agency.

Those changes could result in nothing more than an administrative reshuffling, were legislators to preserve funding for each entity. But that’s unlikely. The proposed budget resolution talks repeatedly of the need to reduce spending and, in particular, curb the clichéd “waste, fraud, and abuse” that is allegedly rampant across the federal government by killing duplicative or unnecessary programs.

To achieve that goal, the committee has proposed changes to the research portfolio at NSF and DOE’s Office of Science that would likely draw fierce opposition from most scientists. (Notably, many of the changes are in line with what the chairman of the House science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has championed in legislation to reauthorize programs at DOE and NSF.)

Without mentioning specific numbers, the budget resolution directs appropriators to provide “stable funding” for only three of NSF’s six research directorates—biology, computing and information science, and math and physical sciences—as well as NSF’s programs to strengthen science education. By omission, the resolution assigns second-class status to NSF’s other three research directorates—engineering, geoscience, and the social and behavioral sciences.

The language affecting DOE science is, frankly, harder to parse. The report hews to conventional wisdom, embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, that “the proper role of the federal government is to support basic research.” But it then declares that “several high-risk projects,” a phrase that is usually synonymous with basic research, “should be embarked on by the private sector instead” of by DOE’s Office of Science.

The typical argument is that such high-risk projects can only be funded by the federal government because they are too risky for companies. Indeed, it adopts that stance in a section asserting that much of the $300 million portfolio of DOE’s fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy goes to grants that are “neither high-risk/high-reward, nor something that private industry could not take on itself.” So the instructions to the DOE science manager are ambiguous, at best.

Returning to safer ground, the budget resolution also avows that “much of” the $600 million that DOE’s science office spent last year on nuclear physics “has clear overlap and duplication.” As a result, it adds, “there must be greater oversight of these grants.”