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House Releases Details of Its Science Budget Proposals

NOV 02, 2023
House appropriators are backing NASA’s imperiled Mars Sample Return mission and prospective NSF large facility projects, according to a newly posted document. The appropriators also elaborate on their proposals to reinstate the Justice Department’s China Initiative and block the White House’s policy requiring immediate free access to research publications.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of FYI
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY)

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chair of the House panel that drafts spending legislation for NASA, NSF, and the departments of Commerce and Justice.

(Bill Ingals / NASA)

The House Appropriations Committee posted a document this week detailing spending proposals for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Commerce Department science agencies.

The committee’s topline spending proposals for these agencies have been public since it advanced draft spending legislation in July, but turmoil among House Republicans delayed the release of the program-level spending details. The House is now soliciting amendments to the legislation for consideration on the House floor, which may occur as soon as the week of Nov. 13.

The document also elaborates on provisions in the legislation that would block the White House’s policy on public access to research publications, reinstate the Justice Department’s China Initiative, and defund workforce diversity programs at science agencies. The counterpart legislation in the Democrat-controlled Senate does not include any analogous provisions and House Democrats have cited the restrictions on diversity programs as among their reasons for opposing the legislation.

Details on these proposals and others in the legislation are summarized below. Consult FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker for program-level spending proposals included in the document.

NASA proposal funds Mars mission, spreads cuts across science divisions

While House appropriators propose to cut the overall budget of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate by 5% to $7.38 billion, they meet the Biden administration’s request to increase funding for the Mars Sample Return mission from $822 million to $949 million and set that amount as a minimum level.

They add, “In accordance with the pending Independent Review Board’s results, and considering the existing architecture committed to successfully returning samples to Earth, the committee directs NASA to ensure that its fiscal year 2025 budget request includes the funding necessary to complete the mission launch no later than 2030.”

Released in September, the IRB’s report concluded that NASA will need more than $1 billion per year for three years beginning in fiscal year 2025 to meet a 2030 launch date using the current mission architecture. The Senate’s counterpart proposal was released before the report and would slash MSR’s budget, setting a minimum level of $300 million and threatening to cancel the mission if NASA cannot control its ballooning cost projections. NASA is currently considering alternative architectures that could decrease annual costs, potentially at the expense of missing the 2030 launch target.

In addition to accommodating MSR’s needs, the House proposal would direct NASA to fund the VERITAS Venus mission at a level ensuring it launches before the end of the decade. In late 2022, NASA postponed the mission’s target launch date from 2027 to no earlier than 2031.

Other notable items from the House proposal are that it would fund NASA’s request for its Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission and deny the agency’s request to contribute $30 million to the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover. ESA sought out NASA’s help with the rover after canceling its partnership with Russia on the project over its invasion of Ukraine.

Aside from these directives, it would largely be up to the agency to decide how to accommodate the House’s priorities within a Planetary Science budget cut by 3%, from $3.20 billion to $3.10 billion, rather than raised to the administration’s $3.38 billion request.

NASA’s other science divisions would likewise be in line for budget cuts. Proportionally, Heliophysics would take the largest one, dropping 12% to $710 million, followed by Earth Science, which would drop 9% to $2.00 billion. Astrophysics would drop 2% to $1.49 billion. As with Planetary Science, the proposal offers little direction concerning how NASA should implement those cuts.

While the Senate has proposed a slightly larger topline cut to the Science Mission Directorate, the reduction would mostly fall on MSR.

NSF proposal anticipates major projects, but limits funding

The document expresses support for NSF’s proposal to begin constructing a Leadership Class Computing Facility, though it does not specify a funding amount for the project.

NSF requested $93 million for the facility within an overall topline of $305 million for its Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account, but the House legislation would only provide $254 million for the account. The committee also states it supports NSF’s mid-scale research infrastructure program and continued construction of the Rubin Observatory, upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider, and facility modernization in Antarctica. Assuming these activities are funded at the requested level, there would only be $42 million remaining for the computing facility.

Also of note, the committee requests regular updates on the Giant Magellan Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope projects and asks NSF to provide it with an “anticipated timeline of when such projects will be moved into the MREFC account.” NSF has not decided whether to request MREFC funding for the telescopes, and it is weighing other potential projects that would compete for limited MREFC funds, such as a new Antarctic research vessel.

NIST remains vehicle for science earmarks

Since Congress decided in 2021 to revive the practice of earmarking funds to specific projects after a decade-long moratorium, it has used the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s budget as a vehicle for funding many earmarks related to research, even in areas unrelated to the agency’s mission.

The document details dozens of research earmarks that House members have requested for projects in their home states, totaling $119 million within the NIST budget, a 70% decrease from the amount earmarked last year. These earmarks would all be funded within NIST’s research account as opposed to also receiving funds from the facilities construction account, in contrast to last year. However, NIST’s total research budget excluding earmarks would remain flat at about $900 million.

The Senate’s proposal also includes $119 million in the research account for earmarks within a flat overall research budget, though it has picked a different set of projects. It also includes $80 million for additional earmarks in NIST’s construction account.

NIST has asked Congress to double the budget allocated to the agency’s own facilities to $262 million to address severe maintenance backlogs. The House and Senate proposals both undershoot this request, allocating $220 million and $134 million respectively.

Republicans blast White House science office

The House’s legislation would prohibit the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any money to implement or enforce the public access policy the office issued last summer. The policy generally requires articles and data resulting from federally funded research to be freely available upon publication, starting in 2026, superseding a 2013 policy that allows articles to remain paywalled for up to one year.

In its explanatory document, the committee refers to the new policy as an “unfunded mandate” and asserts that OSTP did not conduct a “serious financial analysis” of its impacts. It adds, “The committee believes researchers should have the right to choose how and where they publish or communicate their research and should not be compelled to disseminate their research in ways, or under licenses, that could compromise its integrity or result in modification, manipulation, or monetization without consent.”

The document also states the legislation would bar OSTP from spending any funds to “develop, analyze, or encourage article publishing price limits or other anticompetitive market manipulations in scholarly communications.”

OSTP did publish an economic analysis alongside the policy that offers a rough estimate of how much money might be required to cover the costs of open-access publishing, though it did not make an estimate of the costs of making research data available. The office maintains that technological and social shifts since 2013 have made it possible to require immediate access to publications and data, and it has pointed to the lifting of paywalls during the pandemic to aid research as exemplary of the benefits of immediate access.

More broadly, the committee proposes cutting OSTP’s budget by 44% to $5.5 million, attributing the move to several factors. Among them, the committee states it “believes the White House’s political agenda — focused on achieving equity and inclusion — diverts valuable resources from scientific and technological innovation.”

The committee also argues not enough has been done to remedy “significant ethical failures” at OSTP, citing as an example how the office’s lead climate and environment official, Jane Lubchenco, was sanctioned by the National Academy of Sciences last year for violating the NAS code of conduct while working as an editor of its journal. The conduct predated Lubchenco’s time at OSTP and she has apologized for it, but House Republicans have continued to press the White House to remove her from a leadership role in a cross-government initiative that is working to strengthen scientific integrity policies.

The Senate’s counterpart legislation proposes flat funding for OSTP and does not criticize the office.

Republicans push to revive China Initiative

The House committee argues the Justice Department’s decision to end the China Initiative in 2022 was “deeply irresponsible” and proposes the department be required to “reestablish an office dedicated to countering espionage and influence efforts against American businesses, research institutions, and academia emanating from the People’s Republic of China.”

In place of the China Initiative, the department launched an initiative focused on countering threats from a broader array of countries while committing to continue prioritizing cases connected to China. The department explained the China Initiative label created a “harmful perception” within the U.S. research community that it applied a lower evidentiary bar to cases involving people with ties to China.

Regardless of whether the committee’s proposal is incorporated into the final legislation, it reflects the intense interest among congressional Republicans in tightening research security policies and their enforcement.

Diversity and climate programs defunded

The House legislation would defund a collection of workforce diversity initiatives and climate research programs across agencies.

It singles out by name diversity offices at NASA, NSF, and NIST. It also would defund NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, which focuses on learning in out-of-school environments, and its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program, which aims to help students from underrepresented minority groups go on to become faculty at universities.

The committee document broadly characterizes such programs as “activist equity initiatives.” It nevertheless does express support for certain diversity initiatives, such as NSF’s program dedicated to Hispanic Serving Institutions and its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which sets aside funds for states and territories that historically have received a small fraction of NSF funds.

House Republicans have advanced similar proposals in their spending legislation for other science agencies. For instance, the House adopted a provision that would defund the workforce diversity office in the DOE Office of Science, with all but four Republicans voting in favor. Democrats uniformly opposed the provision.

Among research programs related to climate change, the legislation would defund NSF’s nearly $1 billion contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, NSF’s $550 million portfolio of clean energy technology research, NIST’s Center of Excellence in Climate Change, and NIST’s greenhouse gas measurements program.

Spared from outright elimination is the climate research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would be cut 14% to $193 million within a 7% overall cut to NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, currently funded at $761 million.

Meanwhile, the Senate proposes level funding for NOAA climate research and expresses support for climate-related research programs at NSF and NIST.

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