US Budget Omnibus Increases Federally Funded Research Spending


Months into the 2018 fiscal year, the U.S. Congress approved and the president today signed a $1.3 trillion spending plan for the existing fiscal year that increases National Science Foundation funding to $7.77 billion and does not cut social science research funding. In fact, according to independent analysts, the omnibus spending bill sends a record amount of money to all federally funded scientific research.

As such, the budget ignores the spending direction contained in the recently released 2019 proposal from the Trump administration, which slightly reduces NSF funding from 2017 levels — $7.50 billion –and specifically cuts spending on the foundation’s social, behavioral and economics directorate. And that plan was dramatically raised from what Trump had proposed for NSF in FY2018 — $6.24 billion – a figure most saw as more a rhetorical flourish than a serious amount.

While welcomed by a social science community fretting over the decimation of their research funding and an implicit rebuke to Trump’s policy direction, Congress’s apparent willfulness isn’t that much of a break with the president as it is a tradition. As Matt Hourihan, who directs the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The Atlantic, “There’s actually a pretty long history of Congress funding science when they give themselves the financial room to do so, regardless of whoever’s in the White House and whatever they propose.”

And in this case, where the White House has shown little interest, or consistency, in science, and where an empty Twitter threat to veto the omnibus bill was brushed aside by legislators, the rebuke was unremarkable. “Let’s cut right to the chase: Is the President going to sign the bill? The answer is yes,”

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Thursday night. “Is it perfect? No. Is it exactly what we asked for in the budget? No. Were we ever going to get that? No. That is not how the process works.”

The NSF retreat wasn’t even the big story in charting how the omnibus bill, dubbed a “spending spree” by Politico, rejected White House wishes. The president had called for cutting the Environmental Protection Agency budget by a third, while Congress declined to cut it at all.

In justifying the current NSF increase, members of the Congressional conference committee wrote that “this strong investment in basic research reflects the Congress’ growing concern that China and other competitors are outpacing the United States in terms of research spending, as noted in the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board.”

Looking specifically at research spending at the NSF, the omnibus bill increases the Research & Related Activities account at $6.33 billion, which is a $301 million increase from what was actually spent in 2017. The SBE directorate is one of seven research-funding directorates at NSF splitting up that money, and SBE normally receives in the vicinity $250 million. That relatively small amount pays for two thirds of the federally funded basic social science research in the United states.

NSF’s Education and Human Resources account was set at $902 million.

The budget does not provide a line-item breakdown for how NSF’s research directorates are to be funded, which has been a modern tradition and the preferred way for the science experts to parcel out research funding as they deem best. Efforts to create line items for directorate funding have almost always been politicized attempts to pick winners and losers in scientific research, and social science (and usually geoscience) have consistently been the losers.

So while just-signed bill is clearly good news from science, its remit lasts only until the end of the current fiscal year in September.

In other parts of the budget, areas of interest to social science also received good news.

  • National Institutes of Health: $37.1 billion for NIH, a $3 billion increase.
  • Census: $2.8 billion, $1.3 billion above the FY2017 enacted level (in line with the recent independent cost estimate needed for adequate preparation for the 2020 decennial census).
  • Education: $70.9 billion in discretionary funding for the U.S. Department of Education, a $3.9 billion increase above the comparable FY2017 level.  Includes $120 million for the Education Innovation and Research program – an increase of $20 million over FY17 levels.

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