This article is published in the March 2009 issue.

Congress Debates Support for Science in Stimulus, Appropriations


[Note: The final stimulus numbers were not available at press time. For the latest, see: http://www.cra.org/blog]

The first significant spending bill to cross newly elected President Barack Obama’s desk for approval in mid-February likely will be a mammoth $900 billion economic stimulus package that could include nearly $10 billion in federal research funds and research infrastructure support. That bill could be followed shortly by another big spending bill—an omnibus appropriations bill that includes funding for nearly every federal agency for FY2009, including hoped-for increases to the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

In both cases, members of the science advocacy community are hopeful that increases called for in early versions of the bills will survive the legislative process. But as this goes to press in early February, a few significant hurdles threaten science funding in both bills, and the community is working feverishly to bolster support for science among Members of Congress.

The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would provide nearly $900 billion in new spending and tax breaks for a range of job-creating and economy stimulating programs, according to the Democratic congressional leadership who wrote the bill and the Administration that supports it. In addition to large-scale physical infrastructure programs like road building and bridge construction that the bill would direct the government to undertake to generate new jobs, both the House and Senate versions of the bill include substantial investments in scientific infrastructure programs, and even investments in long-term fundamental research at federal science agencies.
While many in the science community are thrilled at the possible increases, the differences in approach between the House and Senate are bringing some uncertainty to the process, making the final total very difficult to predict. The House version is decidedly more generous in its science investments than is the Senate bill, largely due to increased pressure felt by the Senate leadership to court Republican support for the spending measure because of their lack of a filibuster-proof majority.

Most notably, the Senate bill would contain significantly less additional funding for NSF and DOE’s Office of Science than would the House bill. In the Senate bill, the Office of Science is slated for a $430 million increase, including $100 million for DOE’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program. In contrast, the House has approved a $2.0 billion increase for DOE’s science budget, including $1.6 billion for the Office of Science (including $100 million for ASCR), and $400 million for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), called for in the 2007 America COMPETES Act.

The Senate bill would also include less than half of the House-approved increase for NSF. Under the Senate plan, NSF would receive $1.4 billion, including $1.2 billion for core research accounts, $50 million for the Education and Human Resources Directorate, and $150 million for Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction. The House passed a far more generous plan, approving $3 billion in new funding for the agency, including $2.0 billion for fundamental research support, $300 million in Major Research Instrumentation, $200 million in Academic Research Facilities Modernization, $100 million for the Education and Human Resources directorate, and $400 million for Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction.

Because of the discrepancy in funding amounts, the differences will have to be worked out “in conference” between members from both chambers. That process is expected to conclude in mid-February (after this article has gone to press). CRA will have all the details of the final outcome of the stimulus debate on the Computing Research Policy Blog (http://www.cra.org/blog).

Though there is generally strong bi-partisan support for science in both chambers, the inclusion of science within the stimulus bill does not garner universal support. Opposition comes in particular from fiscally conservative members of Congress who believe that the stimulus should only be for programs that can have an immediate impact on the economy—either by creating jobs within the first 120 days of passage or by cutting taxes sufficiently to get dollars in the hands of taxpayers quickly to encourage them to buy more goods and services. While some of the infrastructure-related research spending could fit that description, the investments in longer-term research will clearly take longer to pay off (though their benefits may far exceed the other investments in the bill, science advocates argue).

With a narrower majority in the Senate, the Democratic leadership is more likely to accede to Republican demands for sharper limits on spending, and this could reduce science spending levels even further below the current Senate bill. As a result, science community advocates, including CRA, have rallied their member institutions to put pressure on the House and Senate leadership to hold strong to the science funding levels contained in the House bill.

In early February, CRA joined with its coalition allies on the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation to send letters to the House and Senate leadership urging support for science because “Investments in science and engineering research, and math and science education, will provide immediate relief for America’s struggling workers and families by creating new jobs and stimulating new economic activity while laying a strong foundation for future American prosperity” (See http://futureofinnovation.org). The letters cite a recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation that estimates that a $20 billion investment in America’s research infrastructure will create or retain as many as 402,000 U.S. jobs for one year.

Additionally, CRA launched its own effort to rally the members of the computing community through CRAN, its Computing Research Advocacy Network (to become a member of CRAN, see: http://www.cra.org/govaffairs/advocacy/cran/). Members of CRAN were asked to write their representatives in Congress and urge them to support science and research infrastructure funding in the stimulus, noting in particular how important computing research has been to innovation throughout the U.S. economy and the sciences. CRA also joined with ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) to send letters to the congressional leadership expressing the importance of science funding to the computing fields and how those fields have, in turn, enabled most of our modern economy.

From the letter: “Advances in information technology enable productivity growth, enable the economy to run at full capacity, enable goods and services to be allocated more efficiently, and enable the production of higher quality goods and services. As the National Academies of Science have repeatedly pointed out, those advances—indeed, every multibillion-dollar subsector of the IT industry—all bear the stamp of federal support for fundamental research in computing such as that which would be supported by this Act.”
Immediately following the final disposition of the stimulus bill, Congress plans to take up its unfinished business with the FY2009 appropriations bills. Only the Defense Appropriation for FY2009 was completed before Congress adjourned last December. Since October 1, 2008, the remaining federal agencies have been operating under so-called “continuing resolution”—meaning they can spend at FY2008 levels, but may not start new programs. As they did last year, the leadership intends to consider the unfinished bills as a single omnibus bill.

Like the stimulus legislation, the House and Senate have somewhat different approaches to spending levels that may impact final funding for science agencies in FY2009. While both House and Senate have approved versions of their bills that would grant healthy increases to science agencies, discrepancies in the versions for some of the other agencies within the bill may cause the appropriators to look to reduce some of the science increases to make up the differences. Though both the House and Senate bills call for a 14 percent, or $789 million, increase for NSF in FY2009, and an $844 million and $622 million increase to DOE’s Office of Science, respectively, a difference of opinion about funding for the U.S. Department of the Census could put both those increases at risk of reduction. Senate appropriators believe that the House appropriators shorted the U.S. Census by $500 million in their version of the bill. They seek to add that amount back to the Census by taking from other accounts within the same bill. The large increases planned for science would appear to make a tempting target.

As with the stimulus bill, the science advocacy community is mounting a concerted effort to make the case against such a shift in funding to the leadership and the appropriators involved in the conference. At press time, it is not clear whether that argument will prevail.

The current continuing resolution expires March 6, 2009. Congress will need to take some action—passing the omnibus or extending the CR—before that day. CRA will have the final outcome on the Computing Research Policy Blog as soon as it is known, so be sure to check it regularly.

Peter Harsha, is CRA’s Director of Government Affairs. Contact him at harsha [at] cra dot org.