Senate's proposed budget increases disappoint NSF and NASA

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The US Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved modest budget increases in the next financial year, which starts on 1 October, for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NASA space agency. But, for both agencies, this first step in the annual congressional budget process was a minor disappointment.

For example, although the senators proposed giving $3.64 billion to the NSF next year, a 6.3 per cent increase on this year, it is $129 million less than had been requested by the Clinton administration.

The White House had proposed a 12 per cent increase for the research account that funds individual grants to scientists, but the Senate committee recommends giving $2.7 billion, an increase of only 7 per cent. Included in that are more than $50 million in targeted ‘earmarks’, which would further dilute spending on basic research grants.

The earmarked funding includes an additional $24 million for logistics support of Arctic research, whereas the NSF had asked for only $9.5 million. The senators would also give $50 million to research into plant genomes, $10 million more than the agency requested.

Two important projects, the Large Hadron Collider and the Millimeter Array telescope, would be fully funded. But the Senate committee denied a $25 million request for the Polar Cap Observatory, which has been turned down for two years running by Senator Ted Stevens (Republican, Alaska), chairman of the appropriations committee. Stevens wants the observatory built on US territory, not in Canada as the NSF recommends.

The agency was also denied a 5 per cent increase for salaries and expenses, most of which was aimed at converting the ‘FastLane’ electronic grants administration system to full operational status.

The Senate committee recommended boosting NASA's budget request by $150 million to $13.6 billion. Space science would receive $50 million of this increase, including a $20 million boost for the Mars exploration programme. Earth sciences would receive $25 million more than NASA asked for, and life and microgravity sciences would get the amount requested.

Perhaps more important than the actual increases, the senators strongly warned NASA against “raiding” other parts of its budget to bail out the financially troubled space station. They also restructured the appropriations accounts in part “to ensure that Congress and this subcommittee gets honest figures for the [station],” according to Senator Christopher Bond (Republican, Missouri), who heads the NASA-NSF appropriations panel.

Funding for the space station, space science and aeronautics would now have separate congressional budgets. But NASA is expected to protest against this restructuring.

Both agencies will have further opportunities to plead their case. The full Senate is expected to vote on the appropriations bill later this month. Appropriations committee members in the House of Representatives will write their own funding bill this week, and the two versions will be reconciled into a final bill in the autumn.

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Reichhardt, T. Senate's proposed budget increases disappoint NSF and NASA. Nature 393, 612 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31305

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