But Veto Threat Could Put Science Funding in Doubt
Congress continues to stay on track to honor commitments from the House and Senate Leadership to bolster funding at three key science agencies, but a veto threat from President Bush could derail the annual appropriations process, putting gains for science in doubt.
At the same time, House and Senate Leaders have also approved a mammoth omnibus innovation and competitiveness bill that would “ensure our nation’s competitive position in the world through improvements to math and science education and a strong commitment to research,” according to the bill’s sponsors.
This apparent rollercoaster of good and bad fortune for federal science agencies is evidence of both Congress’s continued strong support for the physical sciences (including math, computing and engineering) and of science continuing to fall victim to larger political concerns in the annual appropriations process despite its strong support.
Like last year, Congress appears to be on a path to continue to approve significant increases for the three agencies that are the focus of the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative and the Democratic Innovation Agenda: The National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE Sci). At each milestone along the appropriations path, the congressional leadership has taken steps to ensure that the appropriators would have sufficient budget room to include increases for the agencies in their respective appropriations bills. In May, the leadership approved a budget resolution that added nearly $2 billion over FY 2007 to the General Science, Space and Technology account, which includes the budgets of NSF, NIST, DOE Sci, as well as NASA and NOAA. That, in turn, allowed the appropriations committee chairs to approve so-called “302(b) allocations” to each of their subcommittees that also provided sufficient space for increases for science.
The initial bills reported out of the appropriations committees further demonstrated this commitment. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water approved its version of the FY 2008 Energy and Water appropriations bill, which includes funding for DOE Sci, in early June, and the Senate followed in late June. Both chambers included increases to DOE Sci of slightly more than 18 percent versus the FY 2007 level, increasing the agency’s funding by $700 million to $4.5 billion in FY 2008. Within the Office of Science, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program would receive an 18 percent increase in the Senate bill, and a 20 percent increase in the House bill. House Appropriations Committee members appeared particularly pleased with the ASCR program, noting in the committee report that accompanied the appropriations bill to the floor that:
Perhaps no other area of research at the Department is so critical [as ASCR) to sustaining U.S. leadership in science and technology, revolutionizing the way science is done, and improving research productivity.
While the DOE Sci increases are significant, they are mitigated somewhat because the agency did not get its full allotment of funding in FY 2007 (as requested by the President and approved by Congress) because of the appropriations “meltdown” that ultimately required a long-term, stopgap funding measure that cut funding to agencies across the board. While both NSF and DOE Sci had some of their gains in the FY 2007 appropriations process protected in the stopgap measure, DOE Sci was harder hit.
The House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, and Science also approved their versions of the FY 2008 CJS Appropriations bill, which include funding for science agencies NSF, NIST, NASA and NOAA. Under both chambers’ versions of the bill, NSF would see an increase of about 10 percent to its research accounts. Additionally, the Senate included language noting its support for NSF’s proposed new cross-directorate research initiative called “Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation” (CDI) and providing the full requested funding for the program of $52 million in FY 2008—of which NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate will control about $20 million. The initiative aims to “explore radically new concepts, approaches and tools at the intersection of computational and physical and biological worlds to address such challenges,” and stems, in part, from an idea for an initiative that emerged from the computing theory community. NSF intends to increase funding for the program to $250 million per year by FY 2012, with CISE likely controlling a proportionate share.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also included increases of just over 15 percent for NIST’s core research programs, and a $69 million budget for the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics program at the agency.
As this issue goes to press, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense had just released its approved funding levels for the Department of Defense, including Defense research, for FY 2008. Overall, funding levels for defense research would be up compared to the President’s requested budgets for FY 2008, but down—in some cases significantly—compared to FY 2007. Basic research (6.1) would be up $48 million over the request, but down $10 million (or 0.7 percent) versus FY 2007. Applied research (6.2) would go up $724 million compared to the request (a 16.6 percent increase), but is still a $248 million (4.7 percent) decrease versus FY 2007. Advanced Technology Development (6.3) would see an increase of $571 million over the request (11.4 percent), but decrease $874 million (13.6 percent) versus FY 2007.
In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also called out for special reductions in the House bill, related to concerns the committee continues to have with the rate of spending at the agency. DARPA has been slow to execute programs for which it has been appropriated money, either because the agency has been a careful steward of taxpayer dollars or because programs have become bottlenecked in the Director’s office, depending on whether one believes the agency’s explanation or the feeling among some congressional committee staff. As a result, the committee reduced funding in the Biological Warfare, Electronics Technology, Advanced Aerospace Systems and Land Warfare Technology program elements. These cuts amount to a loss of $80 million to DARPA versus FY 2007, a reduction of 2.6 percent.
However, all these funding levels are just a first step in what promises to be a contentious appropriations process with the President. The President has indicated he intends to veto most, if not all, of the spending bills the House has approved so far, should they be presented to him. For Congress-watchers, this is not terribly surprising. Facing for the first time a Congress controlled by Democrats, it was likely that the President would be drawn into a political fight over spending, and his most effective leverage in that fight is the veto. While Congress continues to move forward with passing the twelve annual appropriations bills necessary to fund the operations of government, it is unlikely that many will pass with the majority required to override any potential presidential veto. Indeed, in the House, the “magic number” for the President is 145—he needs only 145 out of 201 Republican members of the House to sustain any veto and preserve his leverage in the spending negotiations that will follow.
While it is unclear what kind of train wreck the appropriations process will be, many in the scientific advocacy community believe it may again end in another large omnibus appropriations bill passed late in the session (or early next year). Despite strong support for science programs in Congress and by the President, any science programs stuck in an omnibus could be threatened by any across-the-board cuts to the bill that might be required to get spending down to a level that the President will ultimately accept and sign. Then the focus of the science advocacy community will once again be on protecting the increases for science agencies approved by Congress and supported by the President in a bill in which those programs are just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of programs competing for support. The good news for the community, however, is that such a strategy did find some small amount of success last year when a special protection was granted to NSF, NIST and DOE Sci that preserved some of the increases they received in a final bill that ultimately cut spending by 4 percent. Despite the veto threat, the funding levels included in the appropriations bills for science are powerful symbols of the support R&D issues have in Congress—even if it is likely that those levels might get modified in the coming months for reasons having nothing to do with Congress’s support of science. Another powerful symbol of support is the conference agreement on H.R. 2272, the America COMPETES Act—a compromise bill between the Senate’s S. 761, The America COMPETES Act and the House’s HR 2272, the 21st Century Competitiveness Act. This huge bill incorporates significant portions of both chambers’ versions of omnibus innovation legislation, calling for the doubling of NIST, NSF and DOE Sci over seven years, the creation of a variety of new programs geared towards increasing the number of U.S. students who choose to study math and science and increasing the number of teachers who teach them, as well as some prize programs and other organizational changes to spur innovation at federal science agencies like DOE Sci. (As this issue went to press, the final details on the compromise measure were not yet known. But see CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog for all the details.
Symbolically, this compromise legislation is especially important for Congress. Both Congress and the Administration have spent a considerable amount of time over the past two years talking about the importance of bolstering the chain of innovation that helps keep America a world leader, but neither has much to show for it. With HR 2272 on its way to final passage, it appears that could change soon.