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Little holiday cheer for U.S. science agencies as Congress extends spending freeze

A last-minute decision by Congress to extend a current freeze on federal spending will keep the U.S. government open for another month. Lawmakers yesterday passed a continuing resolution (CR) that orders agencies to continue spending at 2017 levels through 19 January 2018 while Congress tries to settle on final budget numbers for the 2018 fiscal year, which began on 1 October.

That’s the big story.

But the passage of the CR—which allows legislators to scamper home for the holidays—also means that several research agencies must put on hold their hopes for a happier new year.

At the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, for example, officials will have to wait a little longer for what could be a hefty budget boost. In September, a Senate spending panel approved a $2 billion increase for NIH, nearly doubling a $1.1 billion hike approved earlier by the U.S. House of Representatives. But until Congress passes a final 2018 budget—which NIH officials hope will contain the Senate figure—it will have to maintain 2017 spending levels.

The stakes are even higher because of President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the agency’s 2018 budget by 22%, or $8 billion. Although both Republican and Democratic legislators have vowed to block any reduction in NIH funding (and proposed increases), the president’s desired cut hangs over discussions of a final budget deal.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virgina, finds itself in a different, but equally precarious, position. Trump also wants to slash its funding—by $820 million, or 11%—in 2018. And although congressional appropriators don’t favor such steep reductions, the amounts they have proposed for 2018 would still leave NSF between $135 million and $160 million below current levels.

At the same time, key lawmakers have said NSF would benefit from a new budget agreement that would significantly raise the current caps on both domestic and military spending. Democrats have long insisted that more spending is needed to address vital national needs. If the Republican majority agrees to such a deal, the result could mean as much as $100 billion more in domestic spending, some of which presumably would go to NSF and other research agencies.

The latest CR requires NSF officials to tread cautiously, balancing their hopes for additional funding with watching their dollars, in case their final 2018 budget is lower than current spending levels.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science is in a situation similar to NSF’s—rooting for Congress to adopt preliminary budget numbers that would erase the draconian cuts proposed by Trump. NASA science falls between NIH and NSF on the spending spectrum: Trump has proposed a status quo budget, while the House wants to pump up spending on space science.

An extended budget freeze is especially pernicious for the Census Bureau, which is ramping up for the 2020 census. On paper, it should be in an enviable position, as the Trump administration has requested $187 million in supplemental spending for 2018 to help it prepare for the April 2020 count. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says that new figure corrects low-ball estimates by the previous administration on the cost of the upcoming headcount.

However, Congress so far has shown little appetite for the higher number. And census advocates say the agency needs more than double that amount to catch up on chronic underfunding of the decennial exercise. In the meantime, Census officials must make do without an increase as they prepare for a dry run in April 2018.

With last night’s passage of the CR, lawmakers bought themselves a few weeks to hammer out compromises. But that may not be enough time to resolve an array of thorny issues, including how to pay for disaster assistance to regions hit by this year’s hurricanes and wildfires and how to stabilize health insurance markets. If they fail, the fallback is another extension of the current freeze—or a government shutdown on the eve of Trump’s first anniversary in office.