Budget Round-Up: NSF, Defense, and NIST Budget Requests Show Mixed Bag for Research

This post contains parts of an article that ran in the March edition of the Computing Research News.

To round out the President’s 2017 (FY17) Budget Requests for key science research accounts, which were released in February, we wanted to cover the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST). Combined these three accounts cover the vast majority of the Federal government’s investment in IT and computing research. The other major piece is the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

As a refresher, please read our initial analysis of the President’s request from February. To quickly sum up, all is not what it seems. The president, hamstrung by the tight discretionary funding caps (and a congressional majority not interested in revisiting them), is asking for new mandatory spending to make up the bulk of his requested increases at NSF and elsewhere in the budget. For example, of the $500 million in requested increase at NSF, the president is asking Congress for $400 million in a new “one-time” mandatory funding stream. As a reminder, mandatory spending is funding decided by statute or formula, as with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and federal food stamp programs; the research agencies and departments we are talking about get most-to-all of their funding in the discretionary accounts. Creating a new mandatory funding stream for NSF, or any other discretionary program, would require special legislation outside the normal appropriations process and the approval of a Republican Congress increasingly inclined to cut federal spending, not create new sources. The likelihood of Congress approving the President’s new mandatory funding streams is probably near zero.

Let’s get into specifics so you can see what’s going on.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

No other science agency, with the possible exception of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is as affected by the use of this new mandatory spending tactic as NSF.

At NSF, the research directorates are included under the Research & Related Activities (RRA) budget line. The FY 2017 top-line number for RRA is $6.4 billion, which represents a $392 million increase (6.5 percent) relative to FY 2016. However, of that increase, $346 million is funded using mandatory funding. If we just look at discretionary funding, as the appropriators will, RRA would receive a bump of only $46 million, or a 0.8 percent increase, relative to FY 2016. That’s a significant difference.

Drilling into the directorates of RRA, CISE’s FY 2017 increase is almost completely funded under the new mandatory line. CISE would only receive a ~$2 million increase in discretionary funding, or just 0.2 percent above FY 2016. This is about on par with the other research directorates.

Department of Defense (DOD)

The Department of Defense’s Science and Technology (DOD S&T) program is made up of three accounts: 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (applied research), and 6.3 (advanced technology development). These accounts are made up of individual accounts for each of the three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), as well as a Defense Wide (DW) account. DOD S&T overall would receive a 4.1 percent cut under the president’s request, going from $13 billion in FY 2016 to $12.5 billion in FY 2017.

DOD 6.1 basic research would see a significant cut under the president’s plan. The account would see a 9 percent cut, going from $2.3 billion in the FY 2016 Omnibus to $2.1 billion in the FY 2017 budget request. 6.2 applied research fares slightly better, receiving a 3.6 percent cut, going from $5 billion in FY 2016 to $4.8 billion in FY 2017. DOD 6.3 advanced technology development receives a 2.6 percent cut, going from $5.7 billion in FY 2016 to $5.6 billion in the FY 2017 request.
DARPA would see a 3.7 percent increase, going from $2.87 million in FY 2016 to $2.97 million in FY 2017.

This is a pretty disappointing DOD S&T budget request, but it is not unexpected. The leadership at DOD knows that defense S&T is a Congressional priority, so they use a little gamesmanship and remove money from S&T, expecting Congress to put it back during the budget process, and use it to fund other areas in the request that are not Congressional priorities, in the hope that some of that money will stick during appropriations. The obvious problem with this strategy is the chance that Congress won’t put those funds back into S&T. And while the good news is that this request is unlikely to be passed as is, it is still a difficult place to start the process.

National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)

The National Institute of Standards & Technology is on the smaller size of the science agencies, budget-authority-speaking, but it is still a significant contributor for IT research. The main part of the agency that the computing community is concerned about is the Scientific and Technical Research and Services account, or STRS. This part of the agency’s budget handles the research grants, special programs, and laboratory operations of NIST. STRS is slated to receive $730.5 million in the president’s budget, which represents a 5.9 percent increase over the FY16 enacted levels.

Within the increase for STRS are a number of special programs that the Administration has deemed to be national priorities. A few are of note for the computing community. The first program, Advanced Communications – Addressing the Spectrum Crunch, would receive an increase of $2 million ($14.8 million for the program total). The goals of the program for FY17 are to:

  • Conduct research and assist with the development of standards, technologies and applications to advance wireless public safety communications.
  • Conduct research to increase spectrum efficiency and improve spectrum sharing.

As the agency’s policy document points out, expanding the wireless spectrum is vital while the “Internet of Things” grows with ever more connected devices.

The next program of importance is the Lab to Market/Technology Transfer: Expand Technology Transfer Activities to Leverage Existing Authorities to Promote Data Sharing Efforts, in short technology transfer of basic research at government labs to private industry for further development. The program would receive a $2 million boost in FY17 and be at $8 million for the entire program. NIST has government-wide responsibilities for ensuring that taxpayer-funded technologies are transitioned to the marketplace. Congress and the Administration have taken a particular interest in technology transfer in recent years, hoping that it will translate into jobs and economic growth.

Lastly, the Measurement Science for Future Computing Technologies and Applications program would receive a significant increase of $13.6 million, with a total program budget of $25.6 million. This is part of the President’s National Strategic Computing Initiative that was announced last summer. The goals of the program for FY17 are:

  • Develop measurements for atomic-scale computer chip features, benchmark and test new logic and memory devices, and enable new paradigms such as brain-like computers or quantum computers.
  • Determine how much we can trust “virtual prototyping” for complex designs and better connect simulation to real-world measurements to improve product design tools.

The one problem with NIST’s budget request goes back to the tactic of using new mandatory spending. The discretionary parts of NIST (STRS, Industrial Technology Services (ITS), and Construction of Research Facilities (CRF)) all get reasonable increases. However, the President then recommends nearly tripling the entire agency’s budget by proposing a “National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.” This would be, “$1.9 billion to fully fund a network of 45 institutes by FY 2025.” Additionally, there would be another $100 million for the CRF account, “to renovate and modernize NIST facilities in order to maintain and enhance current research and development capabilities.” This would double the size of the CRF account (note: it’s not unusual for this account’s discretionary budget to go up and down significantly, as its depends on what needs to be built and/or renovated). As with the other agency’s mandatory spending requests, these are almost certainly DOA.

Final Analysis

It is not hard to understand why the administration sought to get a little creative in this request given the cap constraints. But this approach—taking an end-run around the discretionary budget caps by designating new “mandatory spending”—is somewhat troubling for the signals it sends to Congress and, in particular, the appropriators. What they likely see is not that the president has justified a new way to pay for science, but instead that he wouldn’t prioritize science investments under the discretionary caps. It appears that in this budget, other programs were more deserving of the discretionary funds.

We knew, given the tight caps for FY17, that this budget cycle would be challenging for science. It’s unfortunate that we start even further in the hole with this budget request. The good news, if we can call it that, is that the budget will most likely not be passed until after the November presidential election. Depending on who wins in the fall, it could radically change what a final budget looks like. The community will want to keep a close eye on how things play out, so be sure to check back for new updates.

Budget Round-Up: NSF, Defense, and NIST Budget Requests Show Mixed Bag for Research