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The National Institutes of Health would get $5 billion in “emergency” funds.

National Institutes of Health

House panels use “emergency” to boost NIH, DOE science budgets

This week, spending panels in the U.S. House of Representatives began voting on bills to fund the government, and a few of them made use of an emergency mechanism to beef up research budgets. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the national laboratories funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science were the big winners, receiving a combined additional $11.25 billion. But to date, the other federal research agencies have come away empty-handed.

The panels were operating under a tight spending cap adopted by Congress last year for the 2021 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. It limits the rise in overall spending on domestic discretionary programs, which includes all nonmilitary research, to $5 billion over 2020 levels. That’s less than 1% in a budget of $627 billion.

But lawmakers retained the option of exempting some activities from the cap by declaring them to be emergency spending. With the arrival of COVID-19, that safety valve also provided a mechanism for science advocates to argue for larger research budgets to help universities deal with disruptions caused by the global pandemic. Last month, a bipartisan group of legislators in the House of Representatives introduced a bill, the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act, that would authorize spending $26 billion across several federal research agencies to do exactly that.

The large increases in the NIH and DOE bills reflect funding from the emergency mechanism. At the same time, these Democratic bills are just the starting point for negotiations with the Republican-led Senate, which are expected to extend beyond the November elections.

Here are details on some major science agencies. More information will be available in the coming days as the panels file reports with the full appropriations committee and the legislation moves through the House.

NIH receives 13% boost

NIH would get a 13% raise in 2021 under a draft spending bill that a spending panel in the House of Representatives took up this afternoon.

The $5.5 billion increase would lift the agency’s budget to $47 billion for fiscal 2021. That is $8.6 billion more than the request from President Donald Trump, who sought a cut of 7%.

Some $500 million of the overall increase would come through the regular appropriation for NIH. The rest, some $5 billion, is designated emergency spending to “increase capacity” at the research universities and institutions that NIH traditionally funds. At least half, or $2.5 billion, would be spread over NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, giving each of them an increase of at least 7%.

“A $5.5 billion increase for NIH is a really good way to start out the appropriations season,” even if the details are “a little messy,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, public affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

The funding levels in the House bill would slow the growth in research on Alzheimer’s disease, which has enjoyed 5 years of annual increases of $350 million or more. Funding tagged for Alzheimer’s would rise by just $35 million, to $2.9 billion, although the National Institute on Aging, the biggest backer, would be free to channel some of its emergency funds into that field as well.

In contrast, the bill would double firearm injury prevention research, to $25 million, after Congress last year earmarked funds for gun research for the first time in more than 20 years. Several other areas are also slated for increases, notably research on a universal influenza vaccine, which would rise $40 million to $240 million. 

NIH has already received $3.6 billion for COVID-19 research in a series of emergency stimulus bills. But NIH Director Francis Collins has said the agency will need $10 billion to help universities recover from losses from shutting down labs in response to the pandemic. Biomedical research lobbying groups have called for $31 billion for NIH to help the agency and biomedical research community recover and rebuild from the pandemic.

The Democrat-led House approved its latest pandemic relief bill on 15 May, including $4.7 billion for NIH. The Senate, however, is not expected to take up the measure and is crafting a separate relief package for consideration when senators return later this month after a 2-week recess.

Windfall for DOE facilities

DOE’s Office of Science would get a one-time boost of $6.25 billion next year under a plan approved today by a House spending panel. The money would be spent on dozens of projects already in the works, according to the draft of the so-called energy and water appropriations bill, which includes DOE’s annual budget.

The idea of including the Office of Science in an economic stimulus package has been circulating for months, says Leland Cogliani, a registered lobbyist with Lewis-Burke Associates LLC and co-chair of the Energy Sciences Coalition. But Cogliani hadn’t thought the stimulus measures would come in the annual budget bill. “It was a pleasant surprise,” he admits.

Some of the more expensive of the 67 projects on the list include $340 million and $332 million for exascale supercomputers at, respectively, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; $641 million for the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, and $448 million for a new atom-smasher known as the Electron-Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. But the bill would also provide $1.3 million to remove an old tritium handling system at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey and $1 million for two new 138-kilovolt transmission lines to bring more electrical power to Argonne.

The money comes on top of the $7.05 billion that the subcommittee would give the Office of Science for its annual budget. That amount would be a 0.7% increase over the agency’s current budget and a 20% increase over the amount requested by the White House, which would have squeezed many programs DOE now supports.

All the projects on the House list appear to be things DOE already has in the works, says William Madia, a vice president emeritus at Stanford University. Speeding up a project can ultimately save money by reducing labor costs, he adds, although there’s a limit to how fast project managers can productively spend money.

The list could have been even longer, Cogliani says. A few months ago, the National Laboratories Directors Council circulated a list in Washington, D.C., of $27 billion worth of infrastructure projects that could be undertaken in the next 3 years.

Although many of the listed projects focus on abstruse physics, Madia says DOE secured the extra funding by making a legitimate case that its supercomputers, x-ray sources, cyro-electron microscopes, and other resources can play a central role in trying to decipher COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. Cogliani believes legislators also see funding facilities as a way to power economic recovery.

Madia is cautiously optimistic that Senate budgeteers will ultimately sign onto the extra funding. But Cogliani thinks a stand-alone bill is a more likely vehicle for the Senate than DOE’s annual appropriation. “This is the start of the conversation,” he predicts.

A small bump for NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive a 3.1% increase for next year under legislation unveiled today.

The spending bill would set NSF’s budget at $8.55 billion for fiscal 2021. That amount is $270 million higher than its current budget and $809 million more than Trump had requested in seeking to cut the agency’s budget by 6.5%.

NSF’s six research directorates would receive an overall boost of 3.4%, to $6.97 billion, while its education directorate would grow by 3.2%, to $970 million. NSF would get $13 million more than it had requested for the construction of new facilities.

Although seemingly modest, those increases represent a vote of confidence in NSF by legislators facing a tight cap on overall domestic spending. At the same time, however, lawmakers did not make use of the emergency funding mechanism to give NSF any additional funds to help grantee institutions deal with disruptions to research caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Science lobbyists had campaigned for such emergency spending for NSF and other agencies, and the RISE Act would give NSF authority to spend an additional $3 billion for such purposes.

No liftoff for NASA

NASA science, which has seen significant increases in its budget over the past few years, would receive a flat budget under the spending plan, at roughly $7.1 billion.

Following an annual tradition, the bill would wipe out the administration’s proposed 10% cut to the earth sciences and give it a $50 million boost, to $2.02 billion; planetary science and astrophysics would remain identical to 2020 levels. Heliophysics would drop from $725 million to $633 million, matching the White House’s proposed cut.

Most notably, the bill would ease restrictions on launching the agency’s next flagship planetary science mission—the $4 billion Europa Clipper, a robotic orbiter to investigate Jupiter’s icy moon. Congress had previously decreed that it be launched on the agency’s expensive, and still untested, Space Launch System(SLS). But another option is OK, according to the spending bill, if a ride on the SLS is not available by 2025.

Few expect the rocket to be ready by then, and its first assignment will be to take humans back to the Moon. NASA requested this flexibility, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency plans to finalize the spacecraft’s design later this year, a step made easier with the selection of a host rocket.