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US funding scramble leaves science agencies in limbo

A divided Congress has until 1 October to hammer out next year’s budget.

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A thunderstorm passes over the U.S. Capitol building.

US lawmakers are running out of time to agree on a plan to fund the government.Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The US Congress has a busy few weeks in store. When lawmakers return from their summer break on 9 September, they’ll have just three weeks to hammer out a 2020 spending deal — and funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF) and other key science agencies is on the line.

Negotiations this year could be markedly different from those in recent budget cycles. Democrats regained the House of Representatives in January, dividing control of Congress between the country’s two main political parties for the first time since 2010.

Science-policy experts are cautiously optimistic that the altered dynamic could be good news for science funding, in part because in early August, lawmakers approved a plan to increase overall government spending in 2020 by US$320 billion.

But much uncertainty remains. Although the House passed the bulk of its spending bills earlier this year — proposing increases for several research agencies, including the NIH and NSF — the Senate has yet to draft any funding legislation (see ‘Uncertain future’). To become law, spending legislation must win approval from both houses of Congress and from President Donald Trump. And the 2020 funding year starts on 1 October.

“It’s pretty unlikely they’ll be able to get all that done in a few weeks,” says Benjamin Krinsky, associate director for legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

The most likely scenario now seems to be that lawmakers will pass some sort of stopgap spending measure to keep the government running while they negotiate a long-term deal. Top Democrats in the House are planning to vote on a temporary funding bill, called a continuing resolution, in the week of 16 September.

Uncertain future

The House of Representatives has passed 10 of 12 annual spending bills for 2020 — including legislation that sets out spending for major science agencies — while the Senate has remained quiet. (Numbers shown in US$ billions.)

Agency

2019 actual

2020 House

2020 Senate

Details

National Institutes of Health

39.4

41.1

N/A

The agency has broad bipartisan support in Congress, and has seen significant budget increases in recent years.

National Science Foundation

8.1

8.6

N/A

The House is proposing a 7% increase for the agency, but it’s not clear that the Senate will be as generous.

NASA

21.5

22.3

N/A

President Trump has asked lawmakers for $1.6 billion in 2020 to accelerate efforts to send US astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Both chambers of Congress have so far ignored that request.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

5.4

5.5

N/A

The House wants to increase spending on climate-change research by 17% — a tough sell to Republicans in the Senate, who tend to be sceptical about the science of climate change.

Krinsky suspects that the Senate will try a different approach to funding the government: bundling the largest spending bills, including the one that includes the NIH, together and passing the package before the 1 October deadline. Any agencies not covered by that legislation would be funded by a separate, temporary measure.

Stopgap funding measures can complicate the work of science agencies, because they generally prevent agencies from creating or ending programmes.

“The science-advocacy community will be waiting with bated breath to see what the Senate prioritizes and what [Congress] can pass before the deadline,” says Krinsky. “Right now, it’s just a guessing game.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02662-w

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