This article is published in the January 2011 issue.

Mid-Term Elections Throw Federal Science Funding in Doubt

Science Agencies May See Flat Funding or Worse in Coming Year, Beyond

With a change in the balance of power in Congress after the November congressional elections, including a shift in the leadership of the House of Representatives, prospects for any significant increase in funding for federal science programs have dimmed considerably, though perhaps not yet completely extinguished. As this goes to press in early December, funding increases for key science agencies approved by congressional appropriators for the 2011 fiscal year appear in jeopardy as Democrats in the lame-duck Congress weigh whether to attempt to push through an omnibus spending bill before the end of the session or punt the uncompleted spending measures to the new Congress in January.

It appears likely that the leadership will elect to pass a stop-gap spending measure known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) for fiscal year 2011 (which began October 1, 2010) that will continue to fund the operations of government at fiscal year 2010 levels. What is not yet known as this is written is the length of that CR. Fiscally conservative members of both parties are lobbying the leadership to consider passage of a CR that would extend until the start of FY 2012 in October 2011, effectively giving up on the FY 2011 appropriations cycle. Doing so, they argue, would effectively freeze discretionary spending at FY 2010 levels, leaving federal agencies forced to cut programs to fund rising personnel costs, and perhaps prohibiting them from starting any new programs or hiring new personnel for the duration of the fiscal year.

However, a Senate vote in December that failed to ban congressional earmarks in the authorization and appropriations process—a ban proposed by the so-called Tea Party wing of the GOP but opposed by eight Republican senators—may have given Democratic leaders some hope that they can secure enough Republican votes to push through the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending measure before they adjourn the session. The Senate earmark ban was defeated by 59 votes, one short of the supermajority required to ensure the passage of the omnibus.

While details of the omnibus appropriations bill were not available at this writing, it is believed that the bill represents the best chance for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology to realize significant increases in FY 2011 that congressional appropriators had approved for them earlier in the appropriations process.1 However, even in this “best case” for the U.S. science community, deal-making with GOP lawmakers still on the fence could mitigate any gains in funding. To entice the support of these undecided lawmakers, the leadership could offer to include such things as a ban on earmarks within the bill, or perhaps an across-the-board cut to spending in the bill that would reduce or eliminate many of the increases previously approved by appropriators.

A third option is that Congress might elect to pass a CR that expires in February, giving the new session of Congress some time to decide whether to pass an omnibus for FY 2011 or just extend the CR for the duration of the year.

There remains a significant amount of uncertainty in the short-term, but one thing that is certain post-election is that lawmakers feel considerable pressure to cut discretionary spending and work to reduce the federal deficit. House Republicans are rallied behind a plan that would cut back discretionary spending to FY 2008 levels. Such a move would have a devastating effect on federal science agency budgets. If the cuts were applied to the NSF budget, the agency would lose $620 million in current annual funding; DOE’s Office of Science would lose more than $1 billion in current funding; and NIST’s core research accounts would lose $108 million.

However, it is not clear that science budgets would receive the full brunt of the GOP’s planned cuts. There is a growing sentiment in the House and Senate, and amplified by a recent report by a Presidential commission looking for deficit reduction solutions, that investments in research and education are critically important to U.S. economic growth and ought to be protected in any deficit reduction plan. The two chairs of the President’s National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—former Republican Senator Alan Simpson (WY) and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles—recommended more than $200 billion in cuts to government programs through 2015, but also recommended continued investment “in education, infrastructure and high-value R&D.”

While that support is encouraging for advocates of increased science funding, congressional retirements and election results have significantly diminished the number of “congressional champions” for research funding in the Congress. With the retirements of current House Science and Technology Committee chair Bart Gordon (D-TN), Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), and appropriations chairman David Obey (D-WI), along with the election losses of Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Alan Mollohan (D-WV), Research and Education Subcommittee ranking member Bob Ingliss (R-SC), and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chair Brian Baird (D-WA), the science community has lost six powerful voices of support for its issues in Congress—six members who have helped defend the research investment during the appropriations process and helped defend the science community whenever it faced challenges in either chamber. A key priority for science advocates in the new Congress is identifying and nurturing the next generation of congressional champions for science.

The long-term challenge for Congress is to address the untenable current growth of both mandatory spending, like federal payments for Social Security and health care, and discretionary spending. In this environment, all discretionary spending, including investments in research, will be under heightened scrutiny. Science community advocates will need champions in the Congress to help make the case for continued investment in the months and years ahead.

Those champions will be needed not only for the appropriations battles ahead, but to pass meaningful science policy. The America COMPETES Act, a bill that would reauthorize many federal science and education programs, also appears to have fallen victim to the changing political landscape in Washington. House and Senate leaders, having considered markedly different versions of the bill in each chamber last year, were unable to work out a compromise measure in enough time to make it on the lame-duck calendar. Instead, Congress pushed forward with more politically salient votes on extending expiring tax breaks and attempting to eliminate the Department of Defense’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy covering gay and lesbian servicemen and women. COMPETES will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress and, as a result, will likely contain much more modest authorizations for the NSF, DOE Science and NIST budgets, and support only for programs specifically designed to increase the participation of U.S. students in math and science disciplines.

The end of the 111th Congress in December and the beginning of the 112th Congress in January promises to be dynamic and full of challenges for the science advocacy community. For all the latest details about how the landscape is shaping up, as it happens, visit CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog.


House and Senate appropriators approved increases of over $340 million to NSF’s research accounts and more than $26 million to NIST’s core research budget in FY 2011, but votes by the full House and Senate on the appropriation bill containing those increases were postponed until after the election.

2 In percentage terms, NSF would lose 8.4 percent of its proposed FY 2011 budget, DOE Science would lose 20.3 percent, and NIST would lose 15.2 percent.

Mid-Term Elections Throw Federal Science Funding in Doubt