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Prospects for Federal Research Funding are Mixed

Friday, February 26, 2016  
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Paula Skedsvold, JD PhD


Prospects for Federal Research Funding are Mixed Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) Paula Skedsvold, JD PhD February 19, 2016 Coming into the new year, there were high hopes that Congress would be able to pass appropriations bills with ease, a return to “regular order.” The budget deal, the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) reached in late 2015, set overall spending caps for the federal budget for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017. The BBA lifted for two years the spending caps set in place through sequestration and provided enough funding for federal programs to enable passage of an omnibus spending bill for FY 2016. It also set the stage for moving the FY 2017 appropriations bills. The process for FY 2017 is encountering hurdles, however. The BBA lifted the discretionary spending caps for this fiscal year by $30 billion over the sequestration level, but the actual spending level from FY 2016 to FY 2017 is essentially flat. Only an additional $3 billion is available to spend in a federal budget of $4 trillion—and most of the $3 billion would be set aside for defense spending, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan. Many in Congress would like to honor the budget deal, even with relatively flat funding, in order to move the bills. The House Freedom Caucus, however, is pushing leadership to sidestep the deal and actually cut $30 billion from FY 2017. It is unclear how this will play out over the coming months, but there are already predictions of a Continuing Resolution to fund government programs until after the election. President’s Budget Proposal In the midst of the debate about a top-line number for federal spending in FY 2017, the President submitted his annual budget proposal to Congress. The President is seeking funding for major priorities within the parameters of the budget deal reached with Congress. To do this, the Administration’s budget staff made heavy use of a different funding mechanism, the short-term use of “mandatory” funding, to make the numbers work. Mandatory funding is not subject to the budget caps. It relies on the sale of a government asset to fund programs, and requires legislation separate from the annual appropriations bills, which uses discretionary dollars. Republican members of Congress were not pleased with the President’s method of working around the budget deal, with some calling it dead on arrival. Science advocates have not been pleased either, since the likelihood of getting mandatory funding is very low, perhaps with one exception – the National Institutes of Health. An authorizing bill seeking additional mandatory funds for NIH, called 21st Century CURES, passed the House of Representatives last year, and is moving forward in the Senate this year, albeit in piecemeal fashion. Despite bipartisan support for NIH, the science community is split on the wisdom of short-term infusions of mandatory money into research because the funds eventually run out, and scientists inevitably face a funding cliff. Mandatory Money and Science Funding What would the mandatory funds in the President’s budget support? As one example, the President proposed a budget increase of $825 million for NIH, using only mandatory funds. The President’s proposal also provided only $30.3 billion in discretionary funds for NIH, down from current FY 2016 funding of $32.3 billion, meaning the agency’s funds would actually be cut if only discretionary dollars are used, that is, unless Congress itself prioritizes funding for the agency. Even the President’s major initiatives, such as the cancer “moonshot,” rely on a mandatory stream of funding. The Institutes and Centers at NIH would take a hit without Congressional intervention. Most observers suspect that the President relied on bipartisan support for NIH in drafting the budget. For the National Science Foundation, it’s a bit more optimistic. In his budget request, the President proposed $8 billion for NSF, a $500 million increase. Of this, $100 million would come from discretionary dollars. The other $400 million in new dollars would need to come from mandatory sources, but there is no momentum in Congress for this. If appropriators look to the President’s proposed increases for the various NSF accounts and distribute the $100 million in discretionary funding among them, the Research and Related Activities (comprised of the six research directorates) account would see a 6.5% increase, and the Education and Human Resources Directorate would receive an 8.3% increase. Using only discretionary dollars, the SBE Directorate would get an additional $210 thousand for the year. Engineering would receive the bulk of the increase at $30.22 million. For a snapshot of the specific numbers, see: Congressional Priorities Members of Congress have their own priorities as well. Given the bipartisan support for NIH, as demonstrated last year when the agency received a $2 billion increase in discretionary funds from FY 2015 to FY 2016, NIH is likely to see at least the funding level it received last year. There is also the possibility that some level of mandatory funding will supplement the discretionary dollars for a short term. With very little discretionary dollars left, other agencies are likely to receive little or no increases in funding, and some may see cuts. And yet, there are other pressing priorities that Congress must tackle this year, such as funding to address the Zika virus and increasing problems with opioid abuse. Will these be funded within the discretionary budget, or will Congress try to fund these outside it? Political Climate As if the overall discretionary spending level were not challenging enough, the politics of getting a new Supreme Court nominee confirmed in the Senate have entered the fray, and may very well upset the entire appropriations process. The Senate Majority Leader has stated that he intends to block consideration of an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. Senate Democrats want a confirmation process to proceed, and, as last year, have the power to stall every appropriations bill that the majority wants to move. For science enthusiasts, the prospects for research funding in FY 2017 are mixed, and the longer-term outlook is not much brighter. Since passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the discretionary dollars used to fund government programs have shrunk—and will continue to do so for years to come. Continuing to cut these programs, however, will not address the fiscal crisis facing us, an aging population and associated costs. It is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and work to put the country on a sustainable fiscal path. We need to change the trajectory for research and innovation funding, which is key to building the science and scientists of the future.

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