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US biomedical and energy budgets inch toward resolution

For the past month, researchers who depend on US government funding have been living two different realities. Those who receive support through the National Science Foundation or NASA, among other agencies, are now moving forward under a 2012 budget that was hammered out in a spending bill enacted on 18 November.

But researchers who work at or receive funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, for example, are still stuck in fiscal year 2011 (which technically ended on 30 September), hoping that a second spending bill, currently in play on Capitol Hill, can be passed this week. That would avert the possibility of a long sojourn in budget limbo, with funding frozen at 2011 levels and the implementation of new programmes delayed indefinitely.

Prospects for a bill have been tied to political battles raging between Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Obama administration over taxes and other matters.  But with the holidays approaching and the threat of a government shutdown looming by the end of the week, it seems the budget log jam is beginning to break up.

The biggest clue is a proposed consolidated spending bill released late on 14 December by the Republican-controlled House Committee on Appropriations. Although it has not yet been officially accepted by Democrats, who rule in the Senate, it may be very close to whatever spending bill lawmakers will end up voting on in the coming days.

Included among the House bill’s science-related highlights are:

> A US$30.7-billion allocation for NIH, a modest (1%) increase over last year’s budget.  However, research advocates note that other parts of the House bill include language that would in effect reduce the NIH budget to offset other costs, so the agency could still come out slightly behind where it stood in 2011.

> A provision that allows the NIH to dissolve its National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) to pave the way for the new National Center for Translational Science (NCATS). The new centre is a signature initiative of NIH director Francis Collins, who proposed NCATS a year ago.  Its approval, which has not appeared in House appropriations language until now, would be a major coupe for Collins.

> A new lease on life for the CURES Acceleration Network, a programme designed to speed translational medicine that would be housed within NCATS. The legislation lays out $10,000,000 for the new programme, which was penned in the Affordable Care Act of March 2011, part of the Obama administration’s health-care overhaul.

> An increase by $46 million to $4.9 billion for the DOE’s Office of Science, including $275 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). That is significantly less than the $550 million the administration requested for the programme, but it will keep the ARPA-E alive. Spending on the Energy Department’s nuclear defence and non-proliferation programme would increase by $505 million; the largest single increase is for nuclear weapons, which received a boost of $338 million over the 2011 fiscal year.

> An increase in DOE research and development spending on nuclear energy and fossil fuels. The budget for fossil fuels would receive a boost of nearly 18%, to $534 million, and spending on nuclear energy would increase by 6%, to $769 million.

> A 3% budget cut for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bringing its overall budget to about $8.4 billion. Roughly $101 million of those cuts come from grant programmes intended to support water infrastructure; the remaining cuts are aimed at the EPA operations budget and in particular at science and regulatory programmes related to clean air and climate change. The bill also includes a directive that the administration report to Congress on all spending on climate change in 2011.

> A $1.25 billion allocation for international commitments to help developing countries clean up their energy systems, adapt to rising temperatures and protect tropical forests. Given that the United States and other industrialized countries have committed to ramping up cumulative spending to more than $100 billion annually by 2020, this is still a baby step. But it is a sign that the administration is winning some of its budgetary battles.

What happens next depends on how quickly the House and Senate can sign off on the bill. With present spending legislation set to expire, it is possible that lawmakers will first pass a short-term resolution to give themselves a one-week extension and try to finish their work by 23 December.

Of course, it’s also possible — given the partisan acrimony that has plagued Washington DC all year — that the process could break down and keep a large fraction of US researchers living in a different reality for quite a while yet.


With reporting from Jeff Tollefson and Susan Young.


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