This article is published in the January 2012 issue.

NSF, NIST Do Surprisingly Well in FY 2012 Appropriations

Despite relatively meager marks from the House and Senate for FY12 science budgets, a few key science agencies received a bit of a surprise in November when congressional appropriators provided final funding levels that exceeded those previously approved levels. The National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology both will see increases in FY12 compared to FY11, and NASA, which had been slated for large cuts, will see those cuts mitigated somewhat. In the bill, NSF will see an increase of 2.5 percent versus its FY11 level, NIST will see an increase of $33 million, and NASA will see a decrease of $648 million-though markedly better than the $1.6 billion cut originally proposed.

The increases were provided in the so-called “minibus” FY 2012 appropriations bill-a package containing three relatively uncontroversial appropriations bills: Agriculture; Commerce, Justice, Science; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. In an effort to make some progress on the stalled appropriations process, the Congressional leadership elected to package in one bill the three measures that were relatively easy to pass, work out the differences between the Senate and House versions, then bring it quickly to the floor for a vote.

The science community had been somewhat pleased earlier this summer when the House appropriators approved their version of the Commerce, Justice, Science bill and managed to hold NSF’s funding flat for FY12. In a bill where essentially every other account was cut, this was seen as a win. The community was less pleased when the Senate released its version of the CJS bill, however, which included a cut of 2.4 percent to the agency, a reduction of $162 million vs. FY11. Going into the conference for the minibus, those figured to be the MAX and MIN case for NSF in the negotiations.

But, in a bit of a surprise, NSF received an increase in the conference agreement of $172 million in FY12 compared to FY11. Of that $172 million increase, $155 million is slated for the agency’s Research and Related Activities directorate “to enhance basic research critical innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness.” Also faring well is NIST, which will receive an additional $33 million over FY11 “to support core NIST scientific research programs that help advance U.S. competitiveness, innovation, and economic growth.”

NASA will see a decrease of about $648 million, which is not quite as bad as first thought. NASA will also be able to continue work on the James Webb Space Telescope, but funding for cost overruns in the program will have to come out of other existing programs at the agency.

In the minds of many in the science community, this result is very positive, especially considering the alternatives thought to be on the table. It’s clear that the argument that basic research is a necessary piece of the chain of innovation still has currency in Congress, and that is very important in this overall atmosphere of belt-tightening. Both parties still recognize that federal support for basic research is an investment with real payoff for the country’s future.

Though Congress did make progress on the minibus, at press time it has failed to move ahead on the remaining nine appropriation bills necessary to sustain the operations of government. As a result, Congress included in the minibus an extension of the so-called “continuing resolution” that makes it possible for Federal agencies and programs to continuing operating, albeit at the same funding level they received for the previous fiscal year. That extension expires on December 18, 2011, at which point Congress will either have to have enacted the remaining appropriations bills or pass yet another continuing resolution.

Complicating the appropriations calculus is the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Debt Reduction (also known as the “supercommittee”) to make recommendations for cutting the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, as they were required to do by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That act, passed in August, established a compromise wherein Congress would agree to raise the Federal debt ceiling, preventing the U.S. from defaulting on any of its debt, in exchange for enacting a set of recommendations that would require all the U.S. to eliminate $1.2 trillion in debt over the next 10 years. The “supercommittee” was charged with coming up with those recommendations-either by raising revenues or cutting spending or both-by November 23, 2011. The committee failed to meet that deadline and, in fact, announced that it was deadlocked and would not be producing recommendations.

As a result, the Budget Control Act requires the activation of a series of “automatic triggers” designed to cut federal spending drastically (particularly spending at the Department of Defense). These triggers, if allowed to occur (Congress always has the option of changing its mind), could certainly impact federal science budgets, and from the appropriators point of view, will have a considerable impact on programs across their jurisdiction. How these cuts will play out remains to be seen. It is very difficult to predict how the future pressures of these automatic cuts will affect the current spending in these appropriations bills. However, a safe bet is that Congress will elect to vote itself another extension to the continuing resolution so they can keep talking about this long after December 18.

Whatever the final result (or even the intermediate results), we will have them on the Computing Research Policy Blog.

NSF, NIST Do Surprisingly Well in FY 2012 Appropriations