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How science fares in the U.S. budget deal

Congress has finally reached a deal on spending bills for the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. House of Representatives and Senate leaders announced last night that they expect lawmakers to vote this week on an agreement that wraps together all 12 appropriations bills that fund federal operations. For the past 7 months, the government has been operating under a continuing resolution that froze 2017 spending at most agencies at 2016 levels and generally prevented them from starting new programs. The new deal allows agencies to operate normally within the constraints of the spending plans, assuming that President Donald Trump signs the legislation (as is expected). It also averts a shutdown of the government that would have occurred next weekend if Congress failed to act in time.

Overall, the deal staves off major cuts for federal science agencies that Trump had requested last month. A few, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA science programs, actually receive substantial increases.

Below, the Science News staff provides some details:

The big picture: A 5% rise in federal R&D this year could be good omen for 2018

Overall federal spending on research and development (R&D) will grow by 5% under a fiscal 2017 budget deal expected to be approved by Congress this week, according to an analysis by the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS in Washington, D.C. (publisher of ScienceInsider).

Total spending on R&D will rise to $155.8 billion for the fiscal year that ends on 30 September, according to the analysis published yesterday. That number includes everything spent on basic and applied science as well as the development of new technologies and the construction of facilities. The split is $72.9 billion for civilian activities and $82.9 billion for military programs. Parsed another way, spending on basic research would grow by 4.1% to $34.9 billion, while funding for applied research would rise by 6.3% to $40.2 billion.

Federal spending on R&D now amounts to 0.81% percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That percentage “represent[s] a small uptick on that metric, and the highest it has been since the year prior to sequestration, the across-the-board cuts levied on federal agencies in FY 2013,” note the authors of the analysis, Matthew Hourihan and David Parkes.

The 2017 “funding outcomes are notable for two big reasons,” the authors note. First, mandatory spending caps imposed by a 2011 law left little room for spending increases at most federal agencies in 2017. But “even without much room to work with, legislators were able to overcome this constraint for many agencies. Perhaps more importantly, these [funding] decisions run directly counter to the Trump administration’s spending preferences for the current year. While one should always be cautious, it does provide some additional evidence beyond rhetoric that the current Congress is willing to push back against the Trump administration’s plans.”

The 2017 outcome also “should give science advocates reason for optimism in light of the administration’s much tougher budget for [fiscal year] 2018,” they write. The president unveiled a “skinny” 2018 request in March that calls for deep cuts at many research agencies, and a full proposal is due out this month. “[T]his same Congress will begin writing the next round of spending bills in a matter of weeks,” the authors note. “Time will tell if the administration is able to wield more influence in the next funding cycle, given their lack of [influence] in the late stages of this cycle.” —David Malakoff

Defying Trump, Congress gives NIH $2 billion boost

Flouting the wishes of the Trump administration, Congress last night approved a $2 billion increase for NIH for fiscal year 2017—the second year in a row that the agency has grown by that amount after more than a decade of stagnant budgets. The Trump administration had proposed cutting NIH’s budget by about $1 billion this year, as part of a proposal to pay for defense spending increases by cutting domestic programs.

The 6.2% bump to $34 billion includes $352 million provided under the 21st Century Cures Act, a measure to boost biomedical innovation that became law in December 2016. It created a 10-year pot of money—to be used for specific initiatives at NIH—that has a mandated funding stream that is not subject to the annual appropriations process. The inclusion of the 21st Century Cures funds means NIH’s base budget is only growing by $1.6 billion.

All the same, advocates for biomedical research, who have been deeply worried by Trump’s budget plans for NIH, were thrilled. “It was worth the 7-month wait! We're extremely grateful” to the leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee NIH’s budget, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. A bill approved last summer in the Senate would have boosted NIH by $2 billion and a House bill would have raised the agency’s budget by $1.25 billion.

The final omnibus bill, which funds NIH through 30 September, raises Alzheimer’s disease research by $400 million to $1.4 billion. Research on antibiotic resistance goes up $50 million. The brain-mapping initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, launched by former President Barack Obama, receives $120 million, including $10 million from the Cures act. Another $160 million in new funding goes to the Precision Medicine Initiative (including $40 million from Cures for its 1-million person cohort study). And $300 million from Cures tagged for the National Cancer Institute is expected to fund former Vice President Joe Biden’s moonshot initiative.

Biomedical research advocates are now girding for what could be a struggle over NIH’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. The Trump administration wants to slash NIH spending by 18%, or $5.8 billion, in large part by cutting overhead payments to universities. —Jocelyn Kaiser

DOE research flat, future of ITER uncertain, but ARPA-E gains

Trump has proposed a massive budget cut next year for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) basic research wing, the Office of Science, but the rest of this fiscal year is looking relatively prosperous. In its omnibus bill, Congress holds spending in the Office of Science essentially flat, giving the United States's single biggest funder of the physical sciences a 0.8% increase to $5.392 billion. That is just $8 million shy of what both the House and Senate had earlier proposed in their markups of the 2017 budget.

The Office of Science supports six research programs, and there were winners and losers among them. On the plus side, advanced scientific computing research, which funds much of DOE's supercomputing capabilities, gets a 4.2% increase to $647 million. High energy physics gets a boost of 3.8% to $825 million. Basic energy sciences, which funds work in chemistry, material science, and condensed matter physics and runs most of DOE's large user facilities, gets a bump up of 1.2% to $1.872 billion. Nuclear physics gets a 0.8% raise to $622 million; biological and environmental research inches up 0.5% to $612 million. In contrast, the fusion energy sciences program sees its budget fall a whopping 13.2% to $380 million.

The biggest question in the budget remains the United States's contribution to ITER, the massive fusion experiment under construction near Cadarache in France. Congress has allotted $50 million for ITER, down from $125 million last year. That cut would come halfway through the fiscal year, which ends 30 September. As researchers have likely already spent that much, the cut would zero out the program for the rest of the year. However, the budget also allows DOE to "reprogram" up to an additional $50 million for the fusion project.

"Basically, Congress has given the administration a dial and it can dial in any number between $50 million and $100 million," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. DOE officials will turn the dial one way or the other once the Trump administration decides whether to stay in or abandon ITER, Mason says.

That should become clear when the Trump administration releases the details of its proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, expected later this month. In its outline "skinny budget," released on 16 March, the administration said that it plans to cut the Office of Science budget by $900 million. But given the current budget, Mason says he hopeful that Congress may not agree to that. "The fact that you see in Congress solid bipartisan support [for the Office of Science] does suggest that when the fiscal year 2018 budget gets resolved it will look significantly different from the [White House] proposal," Mason says.

Congress also appears to think more fondly of DOE's Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), whose goal is to take the promising ideas from basic research and quickly develop them into fledgling technologies. The Trump administration has signaled that it wants to eliminate ARPA-E next year, and last week, DOE put a freeze on ARPA-E grants. However, for this year Congress would give ARPA-E a healthy 5.2% increase to $306 million. —Adrian Cho

Correction: This item originally noted DOE's budget as $5.392 million instead of $5.392 billion.

NSF ordered to build three ships

Congress has told the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build three research ships—but hasn’t given it enough to money to pay for them all.

The 2017 spending bill basically holds NSF’s funding steady—a $9 million bump to $7.472 billion. It keeps both the six research directorates and NSF’s education directorate at their combined 2016 totals, of $6.033 billion and $880 million, rejecting small hikes in each account requested by Obama. And it ignores NSF’s request for $43 million more in operating funds to build and move into a new headquarters building in northern Virginia, leaving officials in a quandary.

The research funding marks a retreat from levels in a bill approved last summer by appropriators in the House, and holds to the figure in an earlier Senate bill. But House appropriators prevailed over their Senate counterparts in ordering NSF to launch a $15 million program for Hispanic college students, something that NSF says it’s already doing as part of a broader outreach to underrepresented minorities.

The only NSF account that grows is for new large facilities. NSF had requested $193 million for three projects. Two are telescopes already under construction (the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile). The third project is two regional-class research vessels that NSF hopes to start building next year to upgrade its academic fleet.

NSF had requested $106 million in 2017 to start building the two vessels, estimated to cost $127 million apiece. (NSF had originally planned on building three ships, but changed its mind after a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel said two were sufficient.) House appropriators balked, zeroing out the project. But the Senate spending panel called for the original trio of vessels, and it won out in the end.

The only problem is that congressional appropriators allocated only $15 million more than the $106 million NSF had requested for continued planning and the start of construction of two ships. That leaves NSF $38 million short, based on a per capita request of $53 million for each ship.

Clare Reimers of Oregon State University in Corvallis, which is managing the construction project, says “The plan is for a staggered build with hulls two and three starting 1 and 2 years after hull one, respectively.” NSF officials declined to comment on how the new spending levels would affect those plans. “It is possible tough choices will need to be made,” says geophysicist Maria Zuber, the chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

But Zuber, who is vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, adds that the board is keeping its fingers crossed. “We appreciate the support for NSF in this challenging budgetary time. And we hope Congress will follow up with a [fiscal year] 2018 budget that continues commitments of these important activities without incurring additional delays and costs.” —Jeffrey Mervis

NASA gets 1.9% boost as appropriators ignore Trump’s requested cuts

NASA fares relatively well in the spending deal, with a budget of $19.653 billion, up 1.9% from $19.285 billion last year. The agency’s Office of Science receives $5.764 billion, up 3.1% from $5.589 billion in 2016.

Defying Trump administration proposals for 2017, the deal continues funding for earth science at 2016 levels: $1.921 billion. That includes $90 million for the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and Ocean Ecosystem satellite, which the White House has proposed eliminating in 2018; none of the three other missions singled out by the administration for cancellation next year are mentioned in the deal. The law also maintains financing for NASA's Office of Education, which the administration has also sought to close in 2018, at its existing level of $100 million.

Bolstered by the support of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who oversees House science appropriations, planetary science saw its budget balloon by 13%, from $1.519 billion to $1.846 billion. NASA’s planned missions to Europa, Jupiter’s icy ocean moon, including a flyby and eventual lander, get fully into swing with $275 million. The deal also includes $408 million for the Mars 2020 rover, which will collect samples on the planet for eventual return to Earth for analysis, including support for a prototype helicopter to hitch along on the rover—provided adding that craft doesn’t delay launch. —Paul Voosen

Small increase for Census Bureau hampers plans for 2020 count

The spending bill gives the U.S. Census Bureau three options to prepare for the next national census—and lobbyists say none of them is attractive.

On paper, the bureau’s $100 million increase, to $1.47 billion, looks generous. But the Obama administration had requested $1.63 billion because the decennial head count in 2020 requires a huge spending ramp-up starting this year. And what congressional leaders have agreed on falls far short of what’s needed to do the job right and hold down costs, says Phil Sparks, a former Census official who is now co-director of The Census Project in Washington, D.C.

“One option is to revert to the pen and pencil census” used in 2010 instead of the increased reliance on electronic data gathering, Sparks says. But that will cost an additional $5 billion, he notes—all the savings that Census officials have promised to deliver. “The second option is to cut back on other surveys that the Census Bureau conducts, including the ongoing American Community Survey and this year’s National Economic Census [conducted every 5 years]. The third option is to cut the end-to-end test planned for next year” to make sure all of the many elements are working smoothly.

The Census Bureau could limp along on a tight 2017 budget if it were assured a big increase in 2018, Sparks says, but Trump’s preliminary budget for 2018 has proposed flat funding. “That’s more than disappointing,” Sparks says. “It’s totally inadequate. And if it comes to pass, we’re headed toward the possibility of a 2020 census that is not fair and not accurate.” —Jeffrey Mervis

NOAA research office receives 3.5% increase as agency gets overall 1% cut

The deal funds the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at $5.7 billion, a decrease of 1% from 2016.

This cut does not, however, target the agency's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which supports critical climate change research across the country. Indeed, the office's budget will increase, by 3.5%, from $462 million to $478 million.

The deal funds NOAA's Sea Grant program, which supports research at colleges across the country, at $63 million, along with a separate $9.5 million line item for marine aquaculture, which is managed by Sea Grant; taken together, these come close to matching the $73 million appropriated in 2016. The office, which is a target for elimination in the Trump administration's 2018 budget, would also see its support for stock assessments of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, funded at $10 million, moved to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the law notes, making the funding to Sea Grant "effectively above the fiscal year 2016 level."

Taking a large hit is NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which sees its budget drop by 6%, from $2.3 billion to $2.2 billion. Targeted in particular is COSMIC-2, a proposed constellation of 12 satellites developed in conjunction with Taiwan, which would use GPS radio occultation, a technique that harvests GPS signals deflected by Earth's atmosphere to infer temperature, pressure, and humidity. The first six satellites are set for launch later this year, but the deal does not include financing for sensors for the second round of satellites, and orders NASA to evaluate within 90 days the potential to acquire similar data from commercial startups like Spire Global and GeoOptics, who have pioneered using small satellites to acquire similar data, and began providing such data to NOAA for evaluation last year.

The law, meanwhile, maintains full support for NOAA's troubled $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of two advanced weather satellites, the first of which is set for launch late this summer, and its $11.3 billion line of four new geostationary satellites, the first of which, GOES-16, launched late last year. —Paul Voosen

Smithsonian strikes out on biodiversity and telescope projects, but sees modest increases elsewhere

The bill would provide the Smithsonian Institution, which receives about two-thirds of its support from the federal government, with $863 million. That represents a $23 million, 2.7% increase for this collection of 19 museums, nine research institutions, and the National Zoo, but is $59 million below what Obama requested for 2017.

Obama’s request included a call to almost triple support for a biodiversity initiative, to about $4.2 million, including funds for genomics, global Earth observatories, and microbial and conservation research. But the new bill provides just a modest $77,000 increase, to $1.53 million. And the bill does not include funding for a proposed $2 million Greenland Telescope.  

However, the new bill does give the SmithsonianTropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Zoo the modest 1% to 5% increases that Obama asked for: to $14.344 million, $4.171 million, $24.393 million, $49.205 million, and $27.252 million, respectively. —Elizabeth Pennisi

For FDA, modest support on precision medicine effort, and a prod on lab test regulation

The $2.76 billion included for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is roughly in line with Obama’s $2.74 billion request, which kept the agency’s funding roughly flat over 2016. The numbers don’t include anticipated user fees, collected from companies submitting products for FDA review.

All told, the bill means the agency gets a nearly $70 million increase over 2016, when new budget authority, previously approved funding to implement the 21st Century Cures Act passed in December 2016, and an extra $10 million to combat Zika and other emerging threats is included, Steven Grossman, deputy executive director at the Alliance for a Stronger FDA in Washington, D.C., noted in a statement.

The bill directs $2.5 million to Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which falls short of the requested $4.4 million intended to establish a clinical data collection system to better match medical devices with patients that would benefit from them.And it makes no mention of $75 million in proposed FDA support for Biden’s cancer moonshot effort. In January, the agency launched an Oncology Center of Excellence, as proposed in the President’s request, to advise the National Cancer Institute on the development of new cancer treatments.

The bill “strongly urges” the agency to continue its work on plans to regulate laboratory-developed tests. These diagnostics, designed and used within individual clinical labs, haven’t so far been subject to the agency’s premarket approval process. They are regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services through the 1988 Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), but FDA has argued that this oversight only makes sure tests are performed properly, and doesn’t review the underlying validity of the answers the tests give. The agency notified Congress in 2014 that it plans to exercise its authority to regulate lab-developed tests, but announced just before the November 2016 presidential election that it would hold off on finalizing its new standards and leave them to the next administration. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, confirmed by the Senate last week, argued in a speech last year that with FDA resources scarce, “there’s no reason that the CLIA can’t be resourced to regulate more aspects of laboratory-developed tests, including more of the clinical considerations that FDA proposes to take on.” —Kelly Servick

NIST stays level thanks to Senate boosters

Senate appropriators largely prevailed in setting this year’s final budget for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—and that’s good news for researchers and advocates of advanced manufacturing.

NIST is scheduled to receive $954 million in 2017, including $690 million for its research activities. That’s a $10 million dip from 2016 levels but some $89 million more than appropriators in the House had wanted to spend. However, neither body came close to meeting Obama’s request for $1.019 billion and $730 million, respectively.

The Senate also had its way on supporting the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, an Obama-era priority in which individual agencies fund large centers that attract significant amounts of private sector money as well. NIST’s final spending bill includes $20 million for its own contribution to the network and up to $5 million to coordinate the effort across the federal government. House appropriators had voted only for the coordination activities.

Similarly, the Senate’s wishes prevailed for the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, giving NIST $130 million rather than the House level of $120 million. And congressional negotiators came down on the side of the Senate in providing $109 million for upgrading in-house research facilities, rather than the House’s proposal for only $50 million. The total includes $60 million for safety and technical improvements on a building doing radiation physics, some $20 million more than the Obama administration had requested. –Jeffrey Mervis

At USDA, competitive grants program for basic science grows again

Lawmakers appear to be developing a soft spot for competitive grants for agricultural research. For the second year in a row, they have beefed up the budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), one of the department’s main sources of funding for basic science in academia. The omnibus bill provides $375 million for AFRI, a 7.1% increase over the 2016 level.

That means “there has been a 15% increase for AFRI over the past 2 years,” says Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, which advocates for farm science funding. “Slowly but surely, people are recognizing the importance of this research program, even in a budget environment that is very tough.”

At the same time, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service got a 2.3% increase, to $1.17 billion. Much of that funding is consumed by the department’s own extensive system of research laboratories, which often lean toward more applied research, or distributed to states based on a funding formula.

Grumbly and other farm science advocates are now looking to build on the momentum as Congress begins to consider Trump’s 2018 budget request, and works to update the massive so-called farm bill that governs U.S. agricultural policy. An outline of Trump’s budget request released this past March was relatively kind to AFRI; although the plan called for slashing many other research budgets—or didn’t mention them at all—AFRI was highlighted in a single line that requested $350 million for the program. “We took that as a victory. … It's one of the few things in the R&D area that they called out in a positive way,” Grumbly says. “Now, we can see if [Congress] can spruce that up a little.”

SoAR is also working to insert “a serious science title in the next farm bill” that calls for doubling, to more than $700 million, the amount of money that USDA spends on competitively awarded research, Grumbly says. —David Malakoff

EPA avoids major cuts

Appropriators trimmed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA’s) budget by $81 million, or about 1%, to $8.06 billion. But they essentially rejected Trump administration requests for deeper cuts to select research and ecosystem protection programs, and removed many policy riders that Democrats in Congress had opposed.

The agency’s science and technology programs, however, did take a $28 million, 3.8% cut, to $707 million.

The Trump White House had identified some $230 million in EPA cuts it wanted Congress to make this year, including a $48 million cut to climate-related research, a $49 million cut to EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and $30 million cut to efforts to clean up contaminated superfund sites. Instead, Congress rejected those requests, keeping air and climate research flat at about $117 million, and the Great Lakes program flat at $300 million, while adding $7.5 million to superfund cleanups.

Lawmakers stripped out many controversial policy riders, but kept several directing EPA to re-examine its greenhouse gas and wetlands protections policies. The bill also includes a controversial directive instructing EPA, together with the energy and agriculture departments, to “establish clear policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of biomass.” Declaring biomass—typically wood chips or other plant material—to be a fuel that does not add to net emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide has been a controversial idea. Critics argue that favoring biomass as a fuel for producing electricity and heat could boost carbon emissions, not curb them, at least in the short run. And environmentalists fear promoting wood fuels could end up harming forests and other ecosystems. —David Malakoff