Department of Energy FY 2017 Request: Mixed Bag for Computing

On Tuesday, February 9th, President Obama released the last budget request of his administration. As we have done in years past, the CRA Policy Blog will be doing a series of posts on the assorted agency budgets that are important to the computing research community. In this post we highlight the Department of Energy (DOE).

The two key parts of DOE for the computing community are the Office of Science (SC), home of most of the agency’s basic research support, and ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. For SC, the President’s FY 2017 plan includes a very healthy increase of 6.1 percent, increasing to $5.67 billion (its FY16 budget is $5.35B). ARPA-E would see a huge increase of 71.8 percent, growing from $262 million in FY 2016 to $500 million in FY 2017. However, those numbers are a bit deceptive as the Administration is using a controversial budget tactic, calling on Congress to create new mandatory spending legislation, to fund much of these requested increases instead of relying on discretionary funds, as a way of avoiding issues with the discretionary caps the President agreed to in a budget deal with Congressional Republicans in November.

Within the SC budget, this new tactic accounts for about a third of the requested increase, but only within the “University Grants” spending line, which would receive $100 million in additional funding should the mandatory funding be approved. As the name implies, this is for funding for, “competitive merit-based review of proposals solicited from and provided by the university community.” If you remove that $100 million from the $325 million DOE SC is slated to receive in the President’s plan, the office would still receive a healthy 4.2 percent bump, or $225 million over FY16.

There is some reprogramming within the computing lines of the office budget that’s worth noting. The Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program within the Office of Science, where most of the computing research at the agency is located, would see a healthy increase of 6.8 percent (or $42 million more than FY16) in the President’s plan. The majority of that increase is slated to go into a new program line focused on the Exascale computing program. As a result, funding is “reprogrammed” from the Mathematical, Computational, and Computer Sciences Research program lines in ASCR and transferred to the new Exascale line. Whether this reprogramming will change the character of the work from research to more development-oriented work related to exascale, or whether this is just a reclassification of research which is already focused on exascale problems under a new program line remains to be seen, but it’s something that bears watching. The bottom-line, though: it appears Exascale gets almost all of the increase in ASCR’s budget, and the rest of the program is flat funded.

The great bulk of ARPA-E’s massive requested budget increase of $209 million over FY 2016 would be funded using mandatory spending. The goal, according to Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, is to put the agency on a path to a $1 billion budget within 5 years, as recommended in the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report (which is where the idea for ARPA-E originated). However, mandatory spending accounts for $150 million of that planned $209 million increase, so the chances are somewhat slim that the agency will grow as the Secretary hopes and the President’s plan calls for. Additionally, large increases in the ARPA-E budget request have been almost a tradition since the agency was founded, with Congress rarely going along with the President’s request. Removing the mandatory spending from the request, the Administration is still calling for a large 21.5 percent increase for ARPA-E, or $56 million, which would bring the agency’s budget to $318 million (it received $262M in the FY16 Omnibus).

How will Congress respond to this request? First, the mandatory spending requests are almost certainly DOA, which means appropriators will likely focus on those funded using discretionary spending. In this budget environment, a 4.2 percent requested increase for the Office of Science shows strong support from the Administration for DOE research investments in general and for computing – and exascale computing — in particular. Congress has generally treated computing research requests favorably in the past. ARPA-E is unlikely to get all the President has asked for, and chances are good it will be flat funded, as it has in most years since its creation. In short, DOE funding will be interesting to see what happens. We’ll keep our eyes on it and will update with any developments.

Department of Energy FY 2017 Request: Mixed Bag for Computing