US President Barack Obama’s budget aims to raise spending on climate and biomedical research, among other areas. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

When US President Barack Obama released his budget proposal on 2 February, he gave scientists and engineers a ray of hope — albeit one that is almost certain to be dimmed, if not extinguished.

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Obama’s US$4-trillion plan for fiscal year 2016 includes $146 billion for scientific research and development, a healthy 6% increase for a portfolio split roughly evenly between defence and civilian programmes. The proposal, which seeks to turn back years of fiscal austerity, is the opening salvo in what is likely to be a long war with the Republican-controlled Congress over government spending.

“The problem, fundamentally, is that this budget is dead on arrival,” says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society in Washington DC.

But he says that Obama may yet succeed in convincing lawmakers to lift the spending caps known as sequestration, which were put in place in 2011. Congress agreed to ease the caps in 2014 and 2015, but a similar agreement for 2016 may be harder to broker. Republicans have expressed interest in ending limits on defence spending, and are seeking to compensate for that by making cuts to civilian programmes.

“We need a real budget, one that allows responsible investments in critical federal programs — including our national defense — without breaking the bank and pushing our country further into deficits and debt,” said Hal Rogers (Republican, Kentucky), chairman of the House of Representatives appropriations committee, in a written statement.

In the meantime, the president is moving ahead with a budget request that aggressively lays out his priorities for the twilight of his term in office, which ends in January 2017. One top concern is climate change, an area of sharp disagreement between the White House and the Republican-led Congress. The multi-agency US Global Change Research Program would receive a 9% increase in 2016, to $2.7 billion.

Climate and energy

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would see an increase of roughly 6%, driving its budget to $8.6 billion — including $769 million for science and technology (see ‘Budget highlights’). The agency would receive $239 million to carry out climate-change regulations and initiatives, and $25 million to help states to comply with a rule — expected to be finalized this year — that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. The budget would also create a $4-billion fund to help states that want to enact even stricter emissions limits on the power sector.

Budget highlights

Table 7.23296 Budget highlights

Republicans are already promising to go after the EPA budget as they seek to head off the agency’s new climate regulations. “This is a giant press release,” says Frank Maisano, a lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington DC who represents energy-industry clients. “It’s just the first marker in what is going to be a very long discussion over the next year.”

The White House plan also underscores the Obama administration’s long-standing emphasis on clean energy. Funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) clean-energy technology and energy-efficiency programmes would rise by more than $800 million, to $2.7 billion, with sharp increases for clean-vehicle and building technologies and advanced manufacturing.

The DOE’s high-risk, high-impact research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, would receive $325 million, a $45-million increase from 2015. The department’s budget also includes $560 million for research related to fossil fuels, including work on carbon capture and sequestration, and $908 million for nuclear-energy research.

Overall funding in the DOE Office of Science would increase by more than 5%, to $5.3 billion, with most of the increase in basic energy sciences and advanced computing. The budget would slash the fusion-energy programme and prevent payments to the international fusion-reactor project ITER, which is behind schedule and over-budget, unless management reforms are undertaken.

Space and Earth sciences

NASA’s budget would increase by $500 million to $18.5 billion, with its science funding holding steady at around $5.3 billion. The agency’s Earth-science programme would get a major boost, increasing by roughly 10% to $1.9 billion. Some of that money would be used to begin planning Landsat-9, the next probe in a series of satellites that has monitored land use and land-cover change since 1972. NASA would also assume responsibility for climate satellites currently overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The White House plan seeks $1.4 billion for planetary science, a drop of roughly 5%. That pot includes funds to capture and study a small asteroid by moving it into the Moon’s orbit. NASA is also requesting $30 million to begin formal planning of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The mission — to a body whose icy crust covers a watery ocean that could, perhaps, support life — has historically won only lukewarm support from the White House but received much stronger backing from Congress, which set aside $100 million for the plan in 2015.

“The increase in the Earth-science budget, coupled with the decrease in the planetary-science budget, is just setting the administration up for a long debate with Congress,” says Marcia Smith, a space-programme analyst and founder of

The NASA request would boost funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy from $70 million in 2015 to $85 million in 2016. The White House had sought to cut funding for the programme entirely last year, but supporters in Congress kept the specially outfitted Boeing 747 flying.

Jupiter’s moon Europa, target of a NASA mission. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR

NASA is seeking to end support for two long-running programmes in 2016: the Mars Opportunity rover, which has operated on the red planet since 2004, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has mapped the Moon’s surface since 2009. The agency’s chief financial officer, David Radzanowski, says that NASA will decide in the summer whether to reconsider and continue operating the ageing Opportunity, but there is no guarantee that it will set aside money to do so.

NOAA would receive just under $6 billion, up from $5.4 billion in 2015. More than one-third of the budget, about $2.4 billion, would go to the agency’s weather and climate probes — including $380 million to develop a mission to avert a potential data gap in the polar-orbiting satellite programme.

Obama’s budget also revives his failed 2012 proposal to move NOAA from the business-focused Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior. The interior department has much in common with NOAA: it conducts environmental and climate research, oversees some fisheries and regulates ocean oil and gas drilling. But merging NOAA into the department is likely to remain a tough sell — even within Obama’s administration. “We have not been advocating for movement of NOAA,” interior secretary Sally Jewell told reporters on 2 February.

The US Geological Survey would see its budget increase by 14% over 2015, to $1.2 billion, with an extra $37.8 million for tools to support land management and a $32-million boost for work on climate resilience and adaptation.

Biomedical sciences

For the first time in years, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was slated for a sizeable budget increase — to $31.3 billion, $1 billion more than it received in 2015.

“This is exciting,” says Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. “In the scheme of everything, it brings us back to where we were before sequestration.”

The White House has been particularly active in creating biomedical research programmes in recent months, requesting $215 million for a new Precision Medicine Initiative that would integrate health and genetic data from at least one million volunteers into a huge database, informing efforts to precisely tailor treatments to individuals (see Nature;2015). That programme, to the relief of many researchers concerned about funding, will not be paid for out of current research programmes at agencies such as the NIH.

The budget proposal also includes funding to implement a September executive order that charged an interagency working group with developing a national strategy to combat anti­biotic-resistant bacteria. The 2016 budget request nearly doubles US government spending on antibiotic-resistance programmes to more than $1.2 billion, with $461 million of that going to the NIH for projects such as developing new antimicrobial agents, and basic research characterizing how resistance evolves. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority would receive $192 million to develop and stockpile those new drugs, and $280 million would go towards activities such as surveillance of resistant strains by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Current NIH programmes would also benefit under the plan. The agency’s budget for its share of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative would more than double, from $64 million in fiscal year 2015 to $135 million this year.

The NIH budget request is still haunted by the ghost of the longitudinal National Children’s Study, which had received a total of $1.2 billion in funds before the NIH cancelled it in December 2014. Yet the 2016 budget requests another $165 million for that specific study, or for related research to characterize environmental influences on children’s health. Because the study’s cancellation was so recent, there was not time to remove it from the budget, says NIH director Francis Collins. The agency is currently mulling what to do with the $165 million that was appropriated for the children’s study in 2015.

Although the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is waning, the CDC would get $294 million more than in 2015 to study emerging zoonotic infectious diseases, giving a total of $699 million for these activities. The agency would also receive a $12-million increase for its Global Health Security Agenda, which would help developing countries to improve surveillance and detect future outbreaks before they get out of control.

The president’s budget also proposed to combine the food-safety offices at the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) into a single agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Ellen Murray, assistant secretary for financial resources at the HHS, says that the department has worked out few details about the proposed agency.

Agricultural research was another big winner, with an 18% rise over 2015. A significant slice of that increase is a $450-million request for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. That money would pay for competitive research grants in areas such as water quality, bioenergy, food safety and sustainable agriculture.

Basic research

The budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) would grow to $7.7 billion, roughly a 5% increase from 2015 and a “very sustainable number for maintaining a healthy research environment”, says Meghan McCabe, a legislative-affairs analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

Of note were several new and continuing cross-disciplinary initiatives. The NSF is seeking $144 million to fund its part of the multi-agency BRAIN Initiative, a 35% increase over what was implemented in 2015. Three other prioritized initiatives would stimulate cross-disciplinary research in food, water and energy systems; risk and resilience planning; and increased diversity among students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The amount allocated to new facilities remained flat, and this year, as last year, the NSF did not request funds for new building projects. The agency will continue to fund three ongoing construction projects: the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). However, the NSF is planning to explore new projects for the future, because construction of NEON will end in fiscal year 2016. The need for research and planning for those future projects is reflected in the NSF facilities budget, which, although declining slightly from $201 million in 2015 to $200 million in 2016, puts 50% more towards concept development and planning.

Another major presidential priority is innovation, particularly in defence, nanotechnology and manufacturing. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which supports some of the most audacious govern­ment-funded research, would increase by $101 million to $3 billion. A total of $1.5 billion would fund work across the govern­ment through the National Nanotechnology Initiative. And the president will seek to expand the national network of manufacturing-innovation institutes, something he has pushed for in previous budgets.