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Final 2020 spending bill is kind to U.S. research

Most U.S. research agencies have received healthy increases for 2020 in a spending bill that resolves a 3-month deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Legislators released details today of how they plan to fund each federal agency for the 2020 fiscal year that ends on 30 September. In almost every case involving science, Congress agreed to give the agency an absolute increase—and much more money than the cuts President Donald Trump had sought for some in his 2020 budget request in February.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, will receive a 7% boost, or $2.6 billion more, to $41.7 billion. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was given an additional $203 million, a 2.5% increase that lifts its budget to $8.28 billion. The budget of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will grow by $415 million, or 6.3%, to exactly $7 billion, and space science at NASA will rise by 3.4%, or $233 million, to $7.14 billion.

Democrats in the House of Representatives struck a deal with Senate Republicans and the White House in July for $320 billion more in overall spending for 2020 and 2021 than would have occurred under a 2011 budget agreement aimed at reducing the federal deficit. The deal was sealed when Democrats agreed to more money this year for the military—$738 billion—and Trump acceded to higher spending on domestic programs, totaling $632 billion. But House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on how to distribute the money among the 12 appropriation bills that set spending for individual agencies.

That logjam broke last week, and legislators then worked out the final details with a series of compromises. In return for higher defense spending, for example, Democrats won support for slashing Trump’s $8.6 billion request for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to $1.4 billion, along with a 3.1% civilian pay raise. Similar horse-trading occurred on hundreds of other provisions.    

Congress is expected to approve the massive spending bill in time for Trump to sign it before the current spending freeze ends on 20 December. Here are some highlights:

  •  NIH’s total includes $330 million more for Alzheimer's disease research, for a total of $2.8 billion. It also provides an initial $50 million for the Childhood Cancer Data Initiative, the $500 million, 10-year initiative proposed by Trump in his State of the Union address. And firearm injury and mortality prevention research, which has been declared taboo by Congress for more than 2 decades but was pushed hard by Democrats this year, would get $12.5 million. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also get $12.5 million for related research.) The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit organization created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act that funds research comparing the benefits of medical treatments, get a 10-year reauthorization. Many patient advocacy and research groups had pushed for PCORI’s renewal.
  • The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would grow by 17%, to $425 million. First funded by President Barack Obama in 2009 but zeroed out repeatedly by Trump, congressional Republicans have, in recent years, embraced its mission to accelerate the application of basic energy research into new technologies.
  • NASA science includes money for both an orbiter and lander of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The former would be launched in 2025, the latter in 2027. That’s a bit later than the preferred schedule of the mission’s godfather, former Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who lost his seat in 2018. But it shows that his legacy survives.
  • The final NSF budget, while an increase, is below levels adopted separately by the House and Senate. Its research budget, by far the biggest piece, would grow by 3.4% to $6.74 billion. Its education directorate would grow at a similar rate, to $947 million, more than reversing the 10% cut that Trump had requested. And the agency’s program to help more than two dozen states at the bottom of the research heap would climb by nearly 10%, to $190 million.
  • Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology would go up by 4%, to $754 million. And its manufacturing extension program, perennially on Trump’s cutting board, would actually grow by $6 million, to $146 million.
  • The Census Bureau would receive what advocates say is the minimum needed to conduct an accurate 2020 decennial census, some $6.7 billion. The huge absolute increase of more than $3 billion needed in the final year of the 10-year cycle makes the agency vulnerable to budget hawks. But legislators decided the boost was “critical” to preserving this tool that is used to apportion 435 House seats among the 50 states as well as the allocation of $1.5 trillion annually.
  • The primary research account within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) gets an 8.5%, $111.1 million increase, although the overall ARS budget declines by 4.6% to $1.607 billion. (The overall decline in 2020 is due to a big boost the agency got for facilities construction in 2019.) USDA's competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, gets a $10 million bump to $425 million, below the administration’s $500 million request. Congress also barred USDA officials from conducting any reorganization without its express consent; the move appears to be partly aimed at blocking a controversial USDA plan to alter oversight of its Economic Research Service, a key statistical office.
  • At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate research programs get a $10.5 million boost to $169.5 million, $82 million above Trump’s request.
  • Basic research programs at the Department of Defense get a 3% boost, to $2.6 billion. The Pentagon is a major funder of mathematics, engineering, and computer science studies.

Clarification, 19 December 2019, 12:57 p.m.: The story has clarified the budget numbers for USDA, to indicate that the primary research account received an increase.