US science agencies set to win big in budget deal

Congress is preparing to vote on legislation that includes a historic US$37 billion for the National Institutes of Health.

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Update: US President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on 23 March, after the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to approve the measure.

Nearly all US science agencies would see their budgets grow in 2018, under a US$1.3-trillion spending deal announced on 21 March. For the second year in a row, lawmakers in Congress seem set to ignore the steep cuts sought by President Donald Trump.

The legislation would boost funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to a historic high of $37 billion, $3 billion over the 2017 level. The National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive $7.8 billion, $295 million more than it received last year. And NASA’s budget would rise to $20.7 billion, an increase of $1.1 billion.

One notable outlier to the overall trend: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Congress has proposed holding the agency’s funding at $8.1 billion, even with the 2017 level. But that might be a victory of sorts, given Trump has proposed slashing EPA funding by more than 30% in 2018, to $5.7 billion.

“This is a good deal,” says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland. “We’re happy to see these numbers and we hope to see this passed.”

Others warn that science advocates should not become complacent. "Don't look for a repeat of this next year," says Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York. The large increases for science agencies came after Congress moved in February to relax mandatory spending caps for 2018 and 2019. That added $63 billion to the overall funding pot this year, but that number will grow only slightly in 2019, to $68 billion.

The House of Representatives voted to approve the bill on 22 March, clearing the way for consideration by the Senate — and ultimately, for Trump’s signature. It’s not clear whether lawmakers will complete this process before the current stopgap funding legislation expires on 23 March. That raises the possibility that the government could shut down briefly, as it did in January and February.

Biomedical and public-health research

The proposed budget for the NIH includes increases for several of the agency’s signature programmes. The Brain Research through Application of Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative would receive $400 million, up $140 million from 2017. And the All of Us research initiative — a 10-year effort to track the health of 1 million Americans, which was formerly known as the Precision Medicine Initiative — would receive $290 million. That would be a $60-million boost over last year.

Trump had sought to cut the NIH budget by 18% in 2018, in part by eliminating one of the agency’s 27 institutes — the Fogarty International Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which helps to train researchers and health-care providers overseas. The spending plan released by Congress includes nearly $76 million for the centre.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would receive $8.3 billion, an increase of $1.1 billion over the 2017 level. Lawmakers in Congress reportedly debated whether to abandon a long-standing provision that prohibits the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control, which has been interpreted widely as a ban on gun research funded or conducted by the CDC. But the spending bill stops short of repealing the provision, which is known as the Dickey Amendment.

Instead, an official report that accompanies the legislation notes that although it includes language to prohibit the CDC and other agencies from funding activities to advocate or promote gun control, “the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence”.

That "does nothing," says David Hemenway, an economist who directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. "Everybody knows that the Dickey Amendment does not prohibit federal funding of gun research." But officials at the CDC also know that if they fund gun research, "they're going to get beaten up".


Within NASA, the bill would set aside $6.2 billion for the agency’s science directorate, an increase of $457 million above the 2017 level. That includes $595 million to send an orbiter and lander to Jupiter’s moon Europa; Trump’s budget had sought $425 million to send a spacecraft flying by Europa. The spending plan would direct NASA to launch the orbiter by 2022 and the lander by 2024.

The bill also includes funding for four Earth-science programmes that Trump had sought to cut — among them, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which would measure carbon dioxide from space, and an ocean-colour and aerosols mission called PACE.

Lawmakers also rejected Trump’s plan to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which would hunt exoplanets and dark matter. The bill includes $150 million for the mission, which US astronomers ranked as their top priority in a 2010 survey of science priorities for the next decade. NASA is looking at ways to reduce WFIRST’s cost, after a recent independent review warned that the mission was likely to exceed the $3.2-billion cap set by NASA.

Energy and environment

The funding legislation includes $6.2 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, an $868-million jump from the 2017 level. Trump had sought to cut its budget to just under $4.5 billion.

Congress also rejected the president’s proposal to slash funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E), which pursues risky research that could yield major advances. The spending legislation includes $353 million for ARPA-E, as opposed to the $20 million proposed by Trump.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would receive $5.9 billion, $234 million more than last year. The US Geological Survey’s budget would rise by $63 million, to $1.1 billion. The legislation includes $23 million for an earthquake early-warning system on the US west coast. Trump had sought to eliminate the federal government’s contribution to the effort.

Although the spending deal would keep the EPA’s overall budget steady, it would cut funding for the agency’s regulatory programmes by $23.5 million.

Nature 555, 572 (2018)

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