What’s Happening with the Federal Budget, Particularly with the Research Agencies, During the Pandemic?

It should come as no surprise that the normal operations of official Washington have been heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Current events have derailed almost every aspect of the usual budget process. Adding to that, the situation remains very fluid as to when legislation, or any official business, will be acted upon by Congress; case in point, at the beginning of April, the House told its members they wouldn’t reconvene until the beginning of May, at the earliest (that obviously didn’t happen, as the House reconvened last week to pass emergency legislation).

There are some official actions that are happening. In terms of emergency funding, the CARES Act, passed at the end of March, has about $180 million dollars in emergency research funding for NIH, NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST. As well, there was about another $86 million for three agencies (NASA, NOAA, and NIST) to support “continuity of operations;” ie, any operations that were disrupted by the pandemic, such as rescheduling a space science mission at NASA. Additionally, there was support for higher education, in the form of about $14 billion; however, that isn’t set aside for research and by all reports is being used by colleges and universities for administrative purposes (meaning, keeping the lights on). All that funding was directly related to responding to the pandemic. If you would like a more detailed breakdown, Science Magazine has a good one (Science even has a free collection of science news and other articles related to the pandemic).

While there was another piece of emergency legislation that was passed last week, it only contains money for NIH and it is directly tied to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is likely to be more emergency legislation in the future, but the timing is unclear; research funding, or even funding to restart the country’s research enterprise, could be included, but that is also not certain at this time.

With regard to the regular Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) appropriations, things are just as unclear. We have heard that the House Appropriations Committee is still planning to act on its FY21 bills, with the plan to do so in May timeframe. Its Senate counterpart has been less vocal about their plans, but the expectation is they will take action later in the summer, in the late-June-July timeframe. However, this is still very preliminary; Congress has still not settled on how it will physically operate while remaining in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Already we have seen some Congressional committees operate what are called “paper hearings,” or hearings that only occur with written testimony. This, and other changes, could become the norm for the duration of this emergency.

Despite being several months into this emergency, Washington is still feeling it’s way through how to operate. That means certainty about what will happen, and when, are in high demand but low supply. We are still monitoring what’s happening, even while safely at home; please check back for more updates.

What’s Happening with the Federal Budget, Particularly with the Research Agencies, During the Pandemic?