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UPDATED: US budget deal – A (science) first look

Get out your pencils and pocket calculators, the US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations has posted the text of the 2011 budget bill that reveals – in part – the implications for scientists of a deal struck late on 8 April between the Republican-led House, the Democrat-led Senate and the Obama White House.

According to a list of reductions also available on the Committee’s website, the final deal includes over $2 billion in specific program cuts to science-related agencies (see table). However, the cuts shown below do not include a 0.2% across the board reduction to all non-defense related programs that is included in the legislation, so the overall impact will be larger.

Last Friday, House Republicans announced they were able to win some $38.5 billion in cuts in discretionary non-military spending relative to the 2010 budget, which has been maintained with some reductions into the current fiscal year through a series of short term ‘continuing resolutions’. The cuts are to be included in a final continuing resolution covering the remaining 2011 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. The resolution is expected to pass this week, as it must, to avoid a US government shutdown – a situation that was only narrowly avoided last week.

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(All figures in millions of US dollars. Final CR program reductions do not include a 0.2% cut to all accounts.)


Most of the savings shown come not at the expense of research but of projects at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose budget the Committee boasts has been slashed by $1.6 billion dollars, a nearly 16% cut. This includes $997 million in cuts to a pair of grant programmes intended to help states improve water infrastructure. In US President Obama’s original budget request for 2011, the programmes had already been designated for a total of $200 million in cuts.

Although the list of program cuts is incomplete, it’s clear that the impact on science is far less than it might have been when compared to the cuts specified in the spending bill ‘HR 1’ passed by the House last February. For example, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which together account for the largest share of grants to US scientists, the cuts amount to a fraction of a percent. Previously, the House bill had slated each for a 5% cut. While still a far cry from business as usual, the new bill is an indication that the administration was both motivated and able to protect science at the negotiating table.

At NASA, which already faces plenty of budget problems, the cuts have been similarly milder than originally called for. The biggest cuts relative to an Authorization Act passed by Congress last September are from aeronautics and space exploration, ($455 million and $616.8 million, respectively). In exploration, the bill directs NASA to spend at least $1.2 billion on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and $1.8 billion on a heavy lift vehicle “which shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.” This is contrary to NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s recent statements that NASA would not need a 130 ton vehicle until the next decade. And, finally, the bill contains language to allow NASA to stop spending on the cancelled Constellation program, a long overdue change.

Some more politically motivated policy changes written into the bill include a measure that explicitly prevents the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from establishing a “Climate Service” to coordinate information about global warming and other long-term climate trends. And, according to this summary document, the bill prohibits both NASA and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy from engaging in “bilateral activities with China”.

At the Department of Energy, funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy would be cut by $438 million, compared to a $786-million cut included in the prior House Republican budget proposal. Cuts to fossil fuel research and development would nearly double, for a total reduction of $226 million, while nuclear energy came out slightly ahead with a reduction of just $56 million, compared to nearly $132 million in the prior Republican proposal.

Perhaps the most apparent victory for research is evident in the agreed budget for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (OS). Where the original House bill aimed to slash $1.1 billion from the OS – a devastating 18% cut – the new agreement has pared that back to a cut of $53 million (not including the across the board 0.2% cut).

Pier Oddone, the director of Fermilab in Batavia Illinois, which is funded through Office of Science, says the bill is a big relief. “What was on the table would have been very difficult to absorb.” While, it’s too early to say how Office of Science will allocate the slightly reduced funding that it receives under the bill to the various labs and projects it supports – Odonne can’t say how the cut will affect Fermilab’s operations – he’s optimistic that there may now be enough funding to run the Tevatron, the proton antiproton collider that is slated for closure in 2011, through the end of the year.

With additional reporting from Adam Mann, Jeff Tollefson and Eugenie Samuel Reich

CORRECTIONS:

An earlier version of this blog did not specify that the numbers show were in addition to the 0.2% across-the-board cut included in the bill.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the ‘Office of Science’ (meaning the Department of Energy Office of Science) was included in a prohibition from engaging in bilateral activities with China.

Comments

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    Tony Mazzaschi said:

    The table is incorrect regarding NIH. The bill lists cuts of $260 million (0.8 percent) from the previous fiscal year, with $230 million of the cut being distributed proportionally among the NIH institutes and centers and another $50 million cut from the NIH buildings and facilities account. These amounts do not include the approximately 0.2 percent across-the-board cut for all non-defense discretionary spending contained in the bill.

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    Dan Yocum said:

    The table says the DOE-OS cut is $35M, but the text of paragraph six says $53M.

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    Barrett Fritz said:

    The table indicates a final cut for DOE-OS of $35M, but the text states “$53 million.” Which is correct?

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    David Harding said:

    The bill’s text does not say that the “Office of Science” is prohibited from bilateral activities with China, but rather the “Office of Science and Technology Policy.”

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