Reading the Tea Leaves from Washington

By John Conway | February 2, 2010 2:05 pm

Every year, not long after the state of the union address, the administration unveils its budget request to Congress. Then comes the long authorization and appropriations process; in an election year I’d bet that they try hard to have it done before November. The Obama administration’s request came out yesterday, and so it’s time to take a look at how science may fare next year.

Jeffrey Mervis at ScienceInsider over at the AAAS has a nice article summarizing the general picture for science in the budget, including an 8% increase for the National Science Foundation and a smaller 3% boost to the National Institutes of Health. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (headed by the president’s science advisor) has a set of fact sheets on science policy. Check out the one on doubling the science budget – the administration is on track for doing just that by 2017. Will Congress support that?

But, being funded by it, I always start first with the DOE Office of Science. The DOE has a summary document with budget highlights; for the Office of Science the most succinct table shows the breakdown by program and year (click on it for a bigger version):


Overall, the OS is looking at a 4.4% increase over FY2009, not including the stimulus bump in 2009, listed in the column called “recovery”. In a year when the administration wants to freeze discretionary spending, that is not bad for science. It’s clearly coming from savings elsewhere, meaning someone’s program got cut, and those people (and their congressional representatives) will be fighting like crazy to restore it.

Within the OS there are winners and losers as well. Basic Energy Sciences, which covers a host of research in condensed matter including nanotechnology, materials, and multipurpose facilities such as the large light sources, gets the lion’s share of the OS budget, and are slated for a 12% increase. I think this reflects the administration’s desire to foster research in areas that could lead in the near to medium term to new sources of energy. That increase, though, along with increases for advanced computing and bio/environment research, has to come from the other programs in OS, and it appears that fusion energy (-10%) and a line titled “Congressionally Directed Projects” . Now what on earth is that?

Now, I am not a Washington insider by any means, but I don’t recall seeing that designation explicitly in the tables before. I believe, though, that it means projects funded through Congressional earmarks. Are all earmark-funded projects being killed? It certainly appears so…

Within my own field the tea leaves say that the administration is requesting that the Tevatron remain in operation through 2011, support participation in the LHC and work on future upgrades to the experiments, and begin to develop the next big project at Fermilab, so-called “Project X” (which deserves a post all by itself some day). Project X will deliver an ultra-intense beam of protons for neutrino and rare decay experiments, including the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment proposed for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) in the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. There is also a substantial appropriation for the Dark Energy Survey; Fermilab is building the camera.

So begins the 2011 budget cycle.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society
  • Doug A

    Looking at the NASA budget, the disfavored son is astrophysics. While earth and solar observations get boosts, astrophysics gets cut back $100 million. That is going to make it a lot harder to launch future satellites like IXO, JDEM, or LISA, all critical missions to explore dark matter, dark energy, and the nature of gravity.

  • Lab Lemming

    “including an 8% increase for the National Science Foundation and a smaller 3% boost to the National Institutes of Health.”

    I think that you will find that 3% of NIH is larger than 8% of NSF by almost a factor of two.

  • Katharine

    Indeed. NIH gets gobs of research money compared to NSF. The government is more interested in biomedical research than in everything else, and while I’m not complaining at the relatively giant amount of research money that goes to biomedical science (I’m going into a subfield of it), even though right now they’re pretty much hurting for extra bucks and virtually nobody can get a grant, I do think that the government tends to be really bad at long-term planning. If it takes longer than four years, they say ‘Whoops, takes too long, we’re going to have another president.’ I actually feel kind of sorry for the physical science people and wish NSF and NASA got more money.

    Politicians are ridiculous. I frequently lament the fact that we are led by idiots rather than people from among our best and brightest; our president may have marbles but a good portion of the legislature doesn’t. But then again, politics is by nature going to attract people who care more about power than doing the smart thing, and someone who is corrupted enough by power is going to focus their attention on gaining more power and not doing the right thing, which means they’ll climb the ladder quickly but leave a lot of crud.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Adding some slight politics knowledge to your post.

    1. The administration is proposing freezing non-security discretionary funding for next years’ budget. So there’s no explicit cut to match the 4.4% increase.

    2. I would also assume Congressionally Directed Projects refers to earmarks. But eliminating earmarks has been all talk and no action from all sides so far. The realistic goal of the administration is to require all earmarks to go through the normal appropriation process – including committee hearings – and have sponsors’ names officially attached to them. President Obama talked about this in his GOP retreat Q and A, which is a must see for everybody, in case you hadn’t heard.

  • Bob

    The earmarks thing actually shows up regularly. The administration always proposed funding with no earmarks (Congressionally-Directed Projects). Congress then adds them back in. This has been happening for years.


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