This article is published in the April 2015 issue.

President’s Budget for Science Mixed, But Computing Research Does OK

The President’s FY 2016 Federal budget request, released in early February, would present a bit of a mixed bag for Federal science agencies. While agencies like the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy would see some increases for their research investments — including investments in computing research — other agencies like the Department of Defense, NASA, and the Department of Homeland Security would endure cuts to their research budgets under the President’s plan.

The President’s request represents the first step in the annual appropriations process — a process this year, with Congress now completely in the hands of a Republican majority, likely to get reshaped around Republican priorities. But this does not mean that the President’s request is “dead on arrival” in Congress. While it’s likely that there will be significant differences of opinion over appropriate funding levels for the many programs in the budget, with their majority not “veto-proof,”[1] congressional Republicans will ultimately have to pass appropriations bills that the President will sign, or risk yet another government shutdown — something both parties are looking to avoid. The veto gives the President his leverage, and his budget represents his “marker” on the table in the negotiations.

The President’s budget courts controversy in one of its central assumptions: that the sequestration regime enacted into law by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and designed to enforce strict caps on discretionary spending is harmful to the Nation and ought to be abandoned. Designed to curb deficit spending and reduce the national debt, the BCA enacted a 10-year plan to cut nearly $1.2 trillion from Federal spending by capping defense and non-defense discretionary accounts —that is, money that Congress appropriates every year, as opposed to non-discretionary spending like that on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the National Debt. Should Congress exceed those caps in any year, automatic cuts would trigger, lopping off an equal percentage of money from every discretionary account in the budget to get the budget beneath the cap. While both Republicans and Democrats have both agreed that this is a pretty poor way to run a government, the sequestration regime has actually managed to curb discretionary spending. In fact, discretionary spending is now nearly $200 billion less, in inflation adjusted dollars, than it was in FY 2010.

In his budget, the President proposes revising those caps. The BCA differentiates between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The President’s budget would require exceeding the defense caps by $38 billion in FY 2016, and the non-defense caps by $33 billion. Among congressional Republicans, there’s little support for busting the non-defense spending caps by $33 billion. However, as this goes to press, the House Republican leadership is moving a budget resolution that would exceed the President’s requested increase for defense discretionary spending. In fact, House Republicans would like to see the $38 billion increase grow to a $90 billion increase above the cap, though it appears they would fund that increase through the use of the “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) account — money outside the normal budget accounting used to pay for U.S. war operations.

But on the non-defense discretionary side, there’s little room for growth, and this will likely make for a tough year for Federal science agencies like NSF, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, when the appropriations process concludes at the end of the calendar year (hopefully).

The President has requested increases for all three of those agencies. For NSF, the President would like to see the agency grown by 5.2 percent in FY 2016, to $7.7 billion. Included in that increase is an increase to the Computing and Information Science and Engineering directorate of about 3.5 percent, or about $33 million more than FY 2015 funding. CISE would see increases across all of its divisions of about 3.8 percent under the President’s plan, and CISE would play a role in nearly all of the agency’s Foundation-wide initiatives including:

  • $28.5 million in the Understanding the Brain initiative;
  • $13.5 million in Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS);
  • $8 million in Risk and Resilience;
  • $1.8 million in the new Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners that have been Underrepresented for Diversity in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) initiative;
  • $94 million in Cyber-Enabled Materials, Manufacturing and Smart Systems (CEMMSS);
  • $84 million in Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science, Engineering, and Education (CIF21);
  • $70 million for Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC);
  • and $11.7 million for Innovation-Corps.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science (SCI) would also grow at a similar rate to NSF under the President’s plan. SCI would see an increase of 5.4 percent, or $27 million, to $5.34 billion for the programs across the office. However, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) would see a disproportionate amount of growth under the President’s budget. ASCR would increase $80 million, to $621 million, in FY 2016 — an increase of nearly 15 percent. The primary driver behind the increase is the agency’s priority on its exascale computing efforts, for which it would spend $87 million in FY 2016. ASCR’s Mathematical, Computational and CS Research account would grow a more modest $2.5 million under the President’s plan, and the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, a program for which CRA joined with the Society of Industry and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) in efforts to reverse cuts to the program proposed by the Administration in previous years, would be “fully-funded” at $10 million to fund a new cohort of fellows.

NIST would grow by nearly 30 percent in the President’s budget, in large part due to a focus on advanced manufacturing programs. The Science and Technical Research Service of NIST, where most of NIST’s core research efforts reside, would also grow by nearly 12 percent in FY 2016 under the President’s plan. Included are research efforts focused on advanced communications, cybersecurity, urban cyber physical systems, and quantum information science.

One area of the research portfolio that does not fare particularly well under the President’s plan and bears watching is funding for basic research (6.1) at the Department of Defense. The Administration would cut the basic research budget by 8.3 percent in this budget, a cut of $189 million to $2.09 billion in FY 2016. Applied research (6.2) and Advanced Technology Development (6.3) would grow — by 1.4 percent and 2.6 percent respectively — and DARPA would see an overall increase of about 3 percent to $3 billion in FY 2016. But the cut to the basic research account has some in the science advocacy community, including those of us at CRA, concerned. In part, this is perhaps a bit of gamesmanship from the Administration. The Pentagon knows that the Congress is favorably disposed to defense spending and the basic research account in particular, and so it’s often the case that they will propose cuts in one area like this, having some confidence that Congress will reverse the cut later, in order to “pay for” increases elsewhere in the agency that the Congress may be less inclined to support. But while it appears there is support for mitigating the cut to basic research in Congress again this year, the magnitude of the cut proposed in this budget may make it difficult to reverse completely. We will continue to watch and advocate for basic research and have more detail on this as the Defense Appropriations process moves forward later this year.

What is also not particularly clear at the moment to science funding advocates is how this will all play out in appropriations this year. What is clear is that it likely will not get done in “regular order” — having each of the 12 annual appropriations bills necessary to fund government passed by the September 30th end of the current fiscal year. Congressional appropriations staff are already talking openly about a “continuing resolution” strategy: passing a stop-gap funding bill to give Congress time after the September 30th deadline to finish up appropriations.

Before then, given the current climate, it is likely that the Republican Congress may force the President to use his veto on these spending bills, if only for political posturing and symbolism. But in the end, the bills have to pass. Because they have to pass, many believe that the endgame will feature yet another mammoth “omnibus” appropriations bill that will bundle many, or all, of the unfinished appropriations bills into one, must-pass measure that will likely be full of compromises — compromises that would likely be unpalatable for either side if the bills were free-standing. But doing them as a bundle decreases somewhat the amount of attention paid to each one and perhaps paves the way to getting appropriations done.

However it works out, we will have all the details for you on the Computing Research Policy blog! (


[1] The GOP lacks a large enough majority to override a presidential veto on a party-line vote.