Congress is considering spending bills that warn NASA not to exceed a new $8.8 billion cap for the James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction.

Chris Gunn/NASA

Update: U.S. science agencies see gains in final 2019 spending bills

*Update, 15 February, 2:40 p.m.: President Donald Trump has signed a package of seven spending bills that give budget boosts to key federal science agencies. The signing marks the end of a budget battle that included a lengthy partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which disrupted work at numerous agencies that conduct or fund research. The final deal provides just $1.4 billion of the $5.7 billion Trump had sought for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—the issue that sparked the shutdown. But today, Trump announced he will attempt to use emergency powers to redirect more money to the wall project.

As reported previously on ScienceInsider, the new spending bills, which cover the 2019 fiscal year that began in October 2018, generally reject deep cuts to research agencies proposed by Trump. The bills “would grant substantive increases for key science agencies including NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation,” notes this recent analysis prepared by David Parkes of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS in Washington, D.C. (which publishes ScienceInsider). “Agencies focused on environmental and climate research,” including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “would be protected from the administration’s proposed cuts.” Details of the 2019 bills can also be found at this budget tracker maintained by the American Institute of Physics in Washington, D.C.

Congress also included language in the spending package that aims to slow plans by the Trump administration to relocate two agricultural research agencies based in Washington, D.C., and rearrange the agriculture department’s organizational chart.

In August 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue announced a competition for cities that wanted to host the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the department’s primary source of competitive academic research grants, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), its major in-house research and statistical office. He also said ERS would be reporting to the departments’ chief economist rather than its undersecretary for research, education, and economics (REE), who oversees NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service.

Agricultural scientists screamed foul and mounted a vigorous lobbying effort that paid off. Voicing concern over “the unknown costs associated with the proposed move,” legislators ordered Perdue to “include all costs estimates for the proposed move” in his explanation of the president’s 2020 budget request, due out next month. They also requested “a detailed analysis of any research benefits of the relocation.”

In addition, they ordered “an indefinite delay” in the proposed ERS reshuffling, believing it to be “appropriate for ERS to remain part of REE.”

Here is our previous story from 22 January:

Don’t try to take the money to the bank. But this week Congress plans to pass 2019 spending bills that would give healthy increases to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and a handful of other science agencies that are now closed because of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Given the current partisan fight over a border wall, it’s no surprise that the Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate will be voting on different bills. Neither version is expected to be adopted by the other body until congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump can reach some sort of deal to end the monthlong shutdown.

When that finally happens, the numbers contained in this week’s appropriations measures stand a good chance of becoming the final spending levels for the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. That’s because both bills are based on a conference agreement hashed out last fall by top appropriators in each house.

Those numbers traditionally remain a secret until the leaders of both parties have signed off on them. But in today’s superpartisan atmosphere, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) broke that unwritten rule to emphasize that she and her Republican counterparts in the Senate had been able to strike a spending deal before Trump put the kibosh on it as part of his demand for $5.7 billion this year to erect a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Senate spending package contains those same numbers for all but one of the agencies—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And that makes all the difference. The Senate bill includes the money that Trump wants for his wall, an amount that House Democrats insist is a nonstarter. Separate legislation would extend current funding for DHS until early next month.

By the numbers

Here’s a look at what several agencies would get. (The House bill contains more details because it incorporates the full conference report, whereas the Senate bill offers numbers only for major programmatic accounts.)

NSF: The agency’s top line of $8.075 billion would be $308 million, or 3.7%, higher than in 2018. (The administration had requested $7.472 billion.) Its research account would grow by $186 million, to $6.52 billion, and its education programs would rise by $8 million, to $910 million.

The biggest winner would be its account for major new construction projects. NSF would get $127 million to continue work on three regional-size research vessels, and $103 million to begin renovations at its facilities in the Antarctic. NSF had only requested $29 million to complete work on two ships, but earlier this year House appropriators finally gave in to the Senate’s repeated demand for three ships. The bills also tell NSF to pay for the Antarctic modernizations, which will cost $355 million over the next 5 years, from this account rather than its research account.

The House bill would allocate $40 million, more than double NSF’s request, for an ongoing initiative at colleges and universities with a large number of Hispanic students. It would also add $16 million to NSF’s $160 million request for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a 40-year-old program to help states that receive minimal NSF funding.

NASA: The space agency’s science account would grow by 11%, to $6.9 billion. That is $230 million above House levels set last year when it was in Republican hands, and roughly $1 billion above the administration’s request.

Both bills order NASA to keep spending money to plan a lander as well as an orbiter for missions looking for water on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. NASA had only asked to do the orbiter, fearing the cost of dual missions. But then-Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who was defeated in November 2018, has long insisted on both, and his colleagues have granted him a final wish. The only pushback in the conference report is a 1-year delay for each mission, to 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Appropriators also have acknowledged NASA’s latest estimate to complete the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), boosting a previous $8 billion total spending cap by $800 million. But after granting several previous increases, legislators say this is the last time they will provide additional money. “NASA should strictly adhere to this cap or … JWST will have to find cost savings or cancel the mission,” the bill declares. The telescope, a successor to the Hubble, is now scheduled for a 2021 launch.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): NIST, within the shuttered Department of Commerce, would get $724 million for its core research activities, $155 million for its industrial outreach programs, and $106 million for construction and renovation of research facilities. That is $4.5 million more for research than in 2018, although it represents a $146 million (25%) jump over the administration’s request. The president had recommended all but eliminating the outreach program, most of which goes to the Hollings Manufacturing Extension partnerships, and also canceling most new construction.

Census Bureau: This Commerce Department agency is gearing up for the 2020 census, which historically requires a huge budget increase in the last few years of every 10-year cycle. Last year, House appropriators recognized that anomaly, adding $2 billion to its 2018 budget for the next headcount. But conferees have instead only matched the administration’s request for a $1 billion boost, to $3.5 billion. The conferees maintained current funding for the bureau’s other periodical surveys and programs, at $270 million, a $20 million bump up from the administration’s request.