NEWS

US science agencies set for budget boost in deal to avert government shutdown

NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency are among the agencies whose funding would increase.

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

A green traffic light in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Lawmakers in Congress are scrambling to pass funding legislation and avert a government shutdown.Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

With less than two days to go before the US government runs out of money, lawmakers in Congress are scrambling to pass a budget deal that would give small increases to NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many other science agencies.

The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the legislation on 14 February — clearing the way for President Donald Trump to sign it before the 15 February deadline to avert a government shutdown. The measure would fund government operations until 30 September 2019, the end of the current budget year.

That is good news for science agencies, which are still reeling from the effects of the historic 35-day shutdown that ended in late January. Nature breaks down how individual agencies would fare under the budget deal, and how they are working to recover from the shutdown.

National Science Foundation

The budget deal includes US$8.1 billion for the NSF, an increase of $308 million from the 2018 level.

The agency is still working to reschedule many of the 111 grant-review panels that were cancelled during the latest shutdown. That “pretty complex juggling act” could take weeks to a couple of months, said Erwin Gianchandani, the NSF’s deputy assistant director for computer and information science and engineering, during a 1 February press conference.

NASA

The space agency would receive $21.5 billion, an increase of $764 million from 2018. The deal includes small increases for NASA’s Earth sciences, aeronautics and science-education programmes.

Like other science agencies affected by the shutdown, NASA is scrambling to make up for lost time. “It’s our intent to fund the entire research programme that we had planned to do this year, and return to previous schedules as quickly as possible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate administrator for science, during a webcast town hall on 7 February. “We want to do 100% of the research programme in 80% of the time.”

But NASA has pushed off a number of deadlines for grant proposals, including its annual Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) programme, which usually issues a call for proposals around 14 February, Valentine’s Day. This year, the ROSES call will not come until sometime in March. NASA has also delayed another much-anticipated call for proposals, for its medium-class planetary-science missions, from 28 February until 1 April.

The space agency had to cancel a planned test in New Zealand of its experimental superpressure balloon, because the shutdown delayed flight preparations. The agency is developing the balloon to fly scientific payloads, such as cosmic-ray detectors, for long periods of time at high altitudes.

Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA’s budget would grow to $8.8 billion under the spending plan — $25 million above the 2018 level, and a whopping $2.66 billion more than Trump had requested for the agency.

Scientists at the agency say that life has mostly returned to normal since the shutdown ended, although there is lingering anger and anxiety among staff over the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to roll back health and environmental regulations. “People had four weeks to take a hard look at how much time they were investing in work and asking whether that has been worth it,” says one senior EPA scientist, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the press.

In some cases, the inevitable delays caused by the shutdown will make it even harder for the administration to accomplish its goals. EPA scientists were expecting a major reorganization of the agency’s main research arm, the Office of Research and Development, early this year, but senior EPA leaders have not announced a timeline for the process.

Food and Drug Administration

The budget deal includes $3.08 billion for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which would boost its funding by $269 million over the 2018 level.

The agency, which was unable to accept applications for new drugs or medical devices during the shutdown, is dealing with a crush of applications that have flooded in since the government reopened. Advamed, a medical-device trade group in Washington DC, estimates that the shutdown could have delayed the submission of some 300 medical-device applications.

The broader effects of the closure might be hard to quantify, says Christy Foreman, a senior consultant at Biologics Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former official with the FDA’s Office of Device Evaluation. Ongoing laboratory research and routine inspections of manufacturing facilities and hospitals were delayed during the shutdown, she notes. “You have a lot of folks working on how to manage the shutdown and the implementation of the process and all those folks aren’t doing their day job.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would receive $5.4 billion under the funding deal, down from roughly $5.9 billion in 2018. The agency’s climate-research programme would get a slight boost, to $159 million — $1 million above the 2018 mark but just over $60 million more than Trump requested.

The atmospheric scientists who run the agency’s greenhouse-gas monitoring programme are still working to determine how the shutdown affected their long-term data sets. Seventy percent of the staff in NOAA’s global monitoring division, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, were placed on enforced leave during the shutdown. Scientists at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a centre at the University of Colorado Boulder that receives NOAA funding, picked up some of the slack.

But Pieter Tans, who oversees the greenhouse-gas monitoring programme, says that the assist was not enough to maintain normal operations. “We did lose data,” he says. NOAA had to halt aircraft flights that would normally gather air samples for analysis, for example, because the agency couldn’t pay the pilots during the shutdown. Even so, NOAA scientists are still working to analyse samples that were collected when the agency was shuttered.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00590-3
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up