NASA's planned Europa missions are among government-funded research for which budgets are up in the air. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists in the United States are nervously watching from the sidelines as the annual budget skirmish heats up in Congress this week. Legislators are back in Washington DC from their August recess with an urgent list of tasks to complete before the country's fiscal year closes at the end of September. In addition to passing a budget to fund the government, they must also raise the debt ceiling so that the country does not default on its loans, and discuss providing emergency-relief funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

But legislators are well behind on drafting their 2018 spending plans, which creates uncertainty about how much money science agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA can expect.

Experts say Congress will probably pass a stopgap funding measure to keep the lights on. Government agencies would remain on 2017 funding levels until lawmakers eventually passed a new budget. In the meantime, they would be unable to start new programmes or end old ones without permission from Congress. We're in for a wait,” says Matthew Hourihan, director of the research and development budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

Hashing out the differences between spending bills from the House of Representatives and the Senate for the 2018 fiscal year could take until December, says Amy Scott, a science-funding and policy specialist at the Association of American Universities (AAU) in Washington DC.

Bridging differences

At this current stage of the budget process, the House and Senate diverge on several key scientific priorities. This is reflected in the appropriations bills that have passed through the committees that oversee scientific agencies.

There is a large gulf in the plans for NASA. The House bill would boost the agency’s science programme by US$94 million over the 2017 level of $5.8 billion, whereas the Senate would cut it by $193 million.

Lawmakers in the House have allocated $2.1 billion for NASA’s planetary-science budget — up from the $1.8 billion it received in 2017. The Senate bill, by contrast, would cut $234 million from current spending levels. Support from the House and Senate is reversed for Earth-sciences research. The Senate would maintain 2017 spending levels at $1.9 billion, but the House would cut it by $217 million for 2018. Despite these differences, negotiations to reconcile NASA’s budget tend to go smoothly, says Scott.

A bigger sticking point is funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), a Department of Energy (DOE) programme focused on incubating innovations in clean energy. The House bill guts ARPA-E and instructs that any remaining money from the $306 million the project received in 2017 be used to “conduct an orderly shutdown” of the programme. The Senate, however, gives ARPA-E $330 million for 2018.

Criticism for the 8-year-old programme often stems from a perceived lack of output, says Julia Smith, a DOE funding and policy specialist at the AAU. “But ARPA-E is young, so we can’t say how it has changed your life because we don’t know yet.”

Another bone of contention is support for the multibillion-euro nuclear-fusion collaboration ITER, which is funded by an international consortium that includes the DOE. The planned facility, under construction at a site in St-Paul-lez-Durance, France, is over budget and suffering continual delays. Congress eventually allocated $50 million for the project in 2017, even though the Senate proposed eliminating its monetary support. For 2018, the Senate is again trying to cut out ITER’s US funding completely, whereas the House has proposed an allocation of $63 million.

Polarizing programme

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) may also face funding difficulties. The House slashes its 2018 budget to $5 billion, down from the $5.7 billion the agency received in 2017. The Senate has proposed $5.6 billion for 2018.

The divisions come to a head on an especially contentious item: NOAA’s Polar Follow-On programme, which operates satellites that collect data used to predict the weather, including hurricanes. The House has proposed only $50 million for this programme, a huge cut from the $329 million it received in 2017. The Senate, however, would give the programme $419 million.

Money for designing and building three new research vessels for the NSF could also be problematic. Congress gave the agency $122 million for this purpose in 2017. For 2018, the House bill cut out all funding for the ships, whereas the Senate provides the $105 million requested by the NSF. Despite these differences, “this is something that does usually end up getting funded”, Scott says.

It is unclear whether or how items such as the funding aid package for Hurricane Harvey will affect negotiations over the budget and the debt limit, says Scott. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the Senate has yet to send half of its appropriations bills — including one that funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — through the relevant spending committees.

Judging by deliberations amongst lawmakers so far, experts say that the NIH will probably get a boost from both the House and the Senate. The two chambers “seem to be remarkably in agreement” on NIH funding, says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

But, until Congress starts working on the hurricane funding, “I don’t think we will know how federal science programmes will be affected”, Scott says.