U.S. Federal budget for science agencies increases


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) leads the way among U.S. science agencies getting increases in the final 2016 spending bill released today.

NIH is the winner in absolute dollars. It gets a bump of $2 billion, or 6.6%, from its current budget of $30.1 billion. Spending on science programs at NASA would grow by 6.6%, to $5.6 billion, and rise by 5.6% in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, to $5.35 billion. The National Science Foundation would receive an additional $119 million, or 1.6%, to $7.46 billion, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would get a 6% boost, to $291 million.

“It’s fantastic news. We’re beyond excited,” says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. United for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C.–based lobbying group, says “this meaningful increase for NIH makes real progress toward catching up from the past decade of underfunding and keeping up with scientific advancements and public health needs.”

With the exception of NIH, these final numbers are higher than what was contained in spending bills for individual agencies passed by panels in the House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this year. The increases were made possible by a late-October agreement between Congress and the White House that set overall spending levels for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. It added $50 billion this year to the $1.017 trillion spent in 2015, divided equally between civilian and military spending, and $30 billion in 2017. The agreement also negated the threat of a government shutdown this fall from conservatives unhappy with any increase in federal spending.

There could be more to the story, however. Congressional leaders have not yet released the report language that accompanies the 2009-page omnibus spending bill. That language contains specific instructions to agencies about how to allocate their dollars. And those instructions could ruffle some feathers.

In the meantime, Congress did spell out a few things in the overall bill itself. For example, NASA was given $175 million to continue work on a mission to Jupiter’s Europa moon, a pet project of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who leads the House spending panel that oversees NASA. And DOE was told not to spend more than $115 million on the U.S. contribution to ITER, the international fusion reactor being built in France, until ITER officials present a new schedule for the troubled project. It also requires DOE to recommend, by May 2016, whether the U.S. should stay in ITER or withdraw.

In other provisions, the bill would give the US Department of Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the department’s main competitive grants program, a 7.7% boost to $350 million. That’s less than the $450 million requested by the White House. Butfarm scientists pushing to boost AFRI’s budget to $700 million by 2018 hope the bump signals better times ahead. Overall, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service gets a roughly 1% boost to $1.144 billion.

The massive spending bill also includes several policy and tax provisions. Democrats failed in their attempt to lift a de facto ban on research into gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But legislators did agree to make permanent and expand the tax credit for new research investments by companies. That move ends decades of uncertainty and political brinksmanship: Since Congress created the credit in 1981, lawmakers have allowed it to lapse six times—most recently last year—and have temporarily extended it 17 times.

The House and the Senate must still vote on the bill, with debate expected to last until at least the end of the week. In the meantime, Congress is expected to vote today on another 5-day extension of current spending levels to avoid a government shutdown at midnight.—With reporting by David Malakoff.