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US lawmakers approve controversial spending bill

Proposal for NSF and NASA would take from Earth and social sciences, and give to planetary exploration.

It is going to be a very long summer for the US Congress. The House of Representatives voted on 3 June to approve a spending bill that would dramatically reshape research priorities at NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — drawing protest from the White House and previewing fiscal battles to come.

US President Barack Obama has already threatened to veto the legislation, citing specific concerns over proposed spending cuts to the development of a NASA mission to Mars, the space agency’s Earth-science research, and weather-satellite programmes at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“It’s a Mars-and-Venus scenario right now,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, deputy director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. “In this case, Capitol Hill’s from Mars, and the White House is from Venus.”

The House plan would set NASA’s budget at US$18.5 billion in fiscal year 2016, roughly 3% above the current level. But the legislation would chop 5.7% from the space agency’s Earth-science research programme, setting its funding at $1.683 billion. That is almost 14% less than the White House request of $1.947 billion, which also proposed transferring some climate-satellite programmes from NOAA to NASA.

Moving targets

Earth science’s loss would be planetary science’s gain. Funding for the latter programme would reach $1.557 billion under the House plan, a 7.6% increase from the current level. That includes $140 million for a proposed mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Congress has long favoured a visit to the icy world, which has a buried ocean that could support life. The White House had resisted such an idea, but relented this year, tucking $30 million for such a mission in its 2016 budget request.

The House bill would increase NASA’s heliophysics budget by 0.9%, to $642 million. Astrophysics would stay almost flat at $736 million, $5 million above the current level, and funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, intended as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, would be set at $620 million, as proposed by the White House.

The NSF’s budget would grow by $50 million in 2016, to $7.4 billion. But the House bill would reshuffle the agency’s main research programmes. It includes unusual language that directs 70% of the agency’s $6-billion research spending to programmes in biology, computer science, engineering, mathematics and physical science. That would effectively impose steep but unspecified cuts on the NSF’s social-science and geoscience directorates — probably around 15%, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

NOAA would see its budget cut by 5.2%, from $5.5 billion this year to $5.2 billion in 2016. The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would take a 3.2% hit, dropping to $432 million.

Bumpy road ahead

The ultimate fate of the spending bill, and others under consideration, is unclear. The Obama administration has baulked at Congress’s decision to abide by sequestration, the across-the-board funding limits set by a 2011 law known as the Budget Control Act. The White House and Congress agreed to ease those spending caps in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but no such deal has been reached for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October.

Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society in Washington DC, says that there is some appetite in Congress to ease those spending limits. “Nobody likes the current situation,” he says. But so far, no solution is in sight — and the White House is issuing a steady stream of veto threats against spending bills that it says undercut national priorities. Meanwhile, the start of the 2016 fiscal year is four months away.

“The question really is, how much will President Obama dig his heels in?” says Lubell. “If [Congress] sends these bills to his desk by mid-September, what will he do?”


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Related external links

H.R. 2578, House Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill

White House veto threat, H.R. 2578 appropriations tracker

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Morello, L. US lawmakers approve controversial spending bill. Nature (2015).

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