It took last week’s budget agreement to rescue the National Science Foundation (NSF) from being an unimportant piece of the nation’s research enterprise in the eyes of the White House.
That’s the key message gleaned from today’s rollout of the president’s 2019 budget request. The request came in two pieces. The first called for NSF’s budget to be slashed by 30%, to $5.27 billion. The second, based on a 26-page footnote to the massive original document that followed minutes later, restores the entire $2.2 billion cut and would leave NSF’s 2019 budget at its current, 2017 level. (Congress has yet to finalize NSF’s 2018 budget.)
Why did the president suddenly reverse course? On Friday, Congress passed a continuation of the current budget freeze that avoided a government shutdown. In addition to funding all government activities for another 6 weeks, the budget agreement raised by nearly a half-trillion dollars the amount of money that Congress could spend. The money applies both to the 2018 fiscal year, which began 5 months ago, and the 2019 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. And Congress will devote the next month to allocating the additional cash.
However, the previous caps, set in a 2011 law, were binding on the president. So his 2019 budget request, developed over months and locked into place weeks before last week’s events, took a huge bite out of domestic spending—including most research activities—in order to boost military spending.
Legislators had already disregarded much of the president’s 2018 budget request in drawing up its spending plans. And the White House risked total irrelevance if it submitted a 2019 budget that failed to account for the new budget levels.
So over the weekend, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney cobbled together a supplemental request that takes into account the additional dollars. And NSF is one of several federal research agencies that have benefited.
The revised NSF request for $7.472 billion is the same as its 2017 budget. The $6 billion account for its six research directorates would grow by $145 million, or 2%. The bump is largely thanks to the proposed start of an upgrade to Antarctic research facilities, although NSF officials don’t yet have an exact figure.
NSF’s education directorate would stay flat, at $819 million, after initially being cut by 29%. The biggest change occurs in NSF’s account for large new facilities. It drops by more than half, to $95 million, because NSF is requesting money for only two of the three midsized research vessels that Congress has told it to build. At the same time, that revised request is $29 million more than the original White House number. The cost of salaries and operations would drop by $25 million, or 7%, because NSF has completed its move to new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
NSF officials did not conduct their traditional press briefing today. But the agency is expected to offer information later in the week on how its 2019 budget request would be allocated.
Clarification, 2/13/2018, 5:07 p.m.: The proposed cut to NSF's overall budget has been increased from 29% to 30%, to reflect the agency's accounting methods.