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December 17, 2007

NSF, NIST Lose Out in Final (?) Omnibus

Update: (12/17/07 1:30 pm) -- It appears this bill is even worse than we initially thought. It turns out that the 3.3 percent increase for NSF's research accounts ("Research and Related Activities") is artificially inflated by some bookkeeping -- namely the shifting of the EPSCoR program from the Education and Human Resources directorate to R&RA. Taking that shift into account, there's really only $57 million in "new" funding in the R&RA account -- a terribly anemic 1.2 percent increase for the research portion of the only federal agency devoted to supporting basic research. When you factor in inflation, that 1.2 percent really represents a cut -- and a complete reversal of the goals of the ACI, the COMPETES Act, and the innovation plans so touted by the congressional leadership.....

Original Post: Having gotten a peek at the final details for what will end up in the omnibus appropriations bill the House will consider Tuesday, I'm a bit dismayed at the choices that have been made. (Congressional Quarterly has the details; unfortunately, you'll need a subscription to access them. The House Rules Committee has the text of the agreement online now.)

Those who have been following the saga that is the FY 08 appropriations process will recall that the total spending in the appropriations bills left unfinished by Congress (which included everything but Defense) exceeded the President's budget request by $23 billion, a figure that brought out the President's veto threat. The Democratic leadership tried to assess that threat by passing a Labor/HHS/Education bill they knew he would veto. When he vetoed it and the Congress failed to override it, it was clear who held the power in the negotiation. So, realizing they didn't have the leverage they needed, the Democratic leadership began to cut back. They attempted to meet the President halfway with an omnibus that proposed an $11 billion cap overrun, but when they couldn't peel off enough GOP members to override any potential veto, they caved completely, agreeing to live within the President's budget cap for all the unfinished appropriations bills.

Unfortunately for the National Science Foundation and National Institute for Standards and Technology -- two agencies that had been at the focal point of the President's American Competitiveness Initiative and the Democratic Innovation Agenda -- living under the cap meant that other programs within the omnibus received higher priorities and the planned increases for those two science agencies were cut sharply.

NSF, which under the House and Senate appropriations plans approved earlier in the year would have received either a 10 or 11 percent increase (respectively) over FY 07, will instead receive just 2.5 percent vs. FY 07 in the new omnibus. NSF's R&RA account (which funds the research directorates) will see just a 3.3 percent increase over FY 07 (instead of a planned 10.5 percent increase), should the omnibus pass.

NIST's research efforts, which had been slated to grow over 15 percent vs. FY 07 in the House and Senate bills, will instead see that planned increase drop to just 1.4 percent over FY 07, should the bill pass.

DOE Office of Science fares a bit better -- and DOE-related computing research comes out even further ahead in the deal. The Office of Science would have grown over 18 percent vs. FY 07 in the earlier House and Senate plans, but the new agreement will reduce that rate of increase to a still-respectable 6.8 percent. Advanced Scientific Computing Research, which had been slated to grow about 20 percent over FY07, would actually see *more* money in the new agreement -- a growth of 25 percent over FY 07. Included in the increase is $19.5 million to "continue the Department's participation in the [DARPA] High Productivity Computing Systems partnership" and an increase of $7.7 million for Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility to "maintain the planned budget and cost schedule."

The agreement also includes details of an additional effort:

The Office of Science and the [NNSA] are directed to establish the Institute for Advanced Architectures and Algorithms with Centers of Excellence at Sandia National Labs and [ORNL]. These Centers will execute a national program involving industry, universities and national laboratories that is focused on technologies to sustain the U.S. leadership in high performance computing. The NNSA ASC and Office of Science ASCR programs will jointly fund the program and provide direction needed to support the goal of developing exascale computing for the Nation.
So, the House is set to begin consideration of the bill Tuesday. The Senate will get it as soon as the House passes it. It's not clear whether the President will sign. There's a core of the House GOP leadership that's still not content with the limited spending in the omnibus. They're leading an effort to push for a "Continuing Resolution" for FY 2008 (funding all agencies at their FY 07 levels) instead of the omnibus as a way of holding an even sharper line on spending. I suppose it's possible that the President could veto the omnibus , and he could cite a lot of reasons -- runaway earmarks, poor prioritization by congressional Democrats, the gutting of ACI -- and the House GOP could force a CR by sustaining the veto. In that case, it would behoove the science advocacy community to push hard for special consideration of ACI-related agencies, as happened under the last CR. And it's not implausible that GOP hard-liners might support it -- after all, the real point of the CR would be to put a hold on earmarks. The science increases are, in fact, in the President's budget.

But barring that somewhat unlikely chain of events -- Presidential veto -> House GOP uphold veto and force CR -> CR favors ACI-related agencies -- the ACI-related increases we'd hoped for at NSF and NIST appear to be lost. It's hard not look for those to blame. The Democratic leadership is certainly open to some criticism for these numbers. When push came to shove and they were forced to live within the President's budget constraints, the leadership didn't feel that preserving the increases for science funding rose to a high enough priority in the face of other increases for programs and earmarks elsewhere in the omnibus. At the same time, the inability to put together appropriations bills that could garner enough support to pass with sufficient support isn't unique to their leadership. You'll recall the FY 07 appropriations process, managed by the GOP, also melted down in spectacular fashion.

In any case, this is a very disappointing development. Failing to get this bipartisan priority (President's ACI, Democratic Innovation Agenda) funded -- essentially abandoning science when it counted -- only puts at risk our long-term competitiveness. It's especially disappointing when one considers how many voices from all sides of the political spectrum have weighed in in support bolstering federal science funding, when the Administration has seen fit to make it a Presidential priority, and when Congress has emphasized its commitment with the passage of a landmark competitiveness bill in overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion.

So, it's hard to imagine what else can be done. The debate over funding for FY 08 is much much larger than science funding. The issues that led to the meltdown are heavily political and have considerations that outweigh anything the science community could bring to the table. But, this is certainly a step back, I think, from science's standing in the Congress at the beginning of this year, when it was granted special status in the CR for FY 07.

Though it certainly gives us a rallying cry for FY 09.

We'll have more details as the omnibus moves forward and a final breakdown of the agency-by-agency numbers when they're passed.

Posted by PeterHarsha at December 17, 2007 04:15 AM
Posted to American Competitiveness Initiative | FY08 Appropriations | Funding | Policy