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Science Agencies Squeezed Under Budget Caps for FY24 and FY25

APR 03, 2024
Most science agencies received budget cuts for fiscal year 2024 and are bracing for another tight budget year.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of FYI
Copies of the president’s budget request emerging from a printing press.jpg

Copies of the president’s budget request emerging from a printing press.

(Government Publishing Office)

Lofty rhetoric from lawmakers about increasing science spending met the hard reality of budget caps this year, with Congress cutting most science agencies in its final appropriations for fiscal year 2024.

The numbers are set through two packages of legislation, the first signed into law on March 9 and the second on March 23. FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker collects details on the appropriations as well as President Joe Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2025, released in-between the two packages.

Among the hardest hit agencies is the National Science Foundation, whose budget is shrinking 8% to $9.06 billion. The cut reverses much of the 12% increase that Congress provided NSF last year using a special supplementary appropriation.

Congress framed that $1 billion supplement as a downpayment on the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which proposed rapidly expanding NSF as well as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. But the supplement ultimately was a maneuver to evade budget limits negotiated for that year, and Congress was unwilling to make the same move this year.

NIST also received one of the largest cuts in percentage terms across science agencies, dropping 8% to $1.16 billion. This rolls back about half of the 18% increase Congress provided NIST for the previous fiscal year. (These figures exclude earmarks for projects external to NIST.)

The DOE Office of Science was one of the few science agencies to escape budget cuts, receiving a 1.7% increase to $8.24 billion that builds on the 8% increase it received last fiscal year. Nevertheless, the amount for this year is unlikely to keep pace with inflation and will still present the agency with hard choices on what programs to prioritize.

final-fy24-science-appropriations-summary-chart.jpg

A chart showing the FY2024 appropriations for selected science agencies.

These three agencies are together now about $8 billion below the targets the CHIPS and Science Act set for fiscal year 2024, with most of the shortfall coming from NSF. Though disappointing for science advocates, the outcome is not particularly surprising.

Congress routinely does not follow through on the budget targets it sets for itself. The present dynamic echoes the story of the America COMPETES Acts, whose ambitions for growing the same three agencies evaporated after a showdown in 2011 over raising the national debt limit led to a decade of budget caps.

The latest outcome has its roots in a similar fight last spring over raising the debt limit. The Republican-controlled House ultimately agreed to raise the limit in exchange for creating new budget caps on discretionary spending. The compromise, implemented through the Fiscal Responsibility Act and a verbal side-agreement, holds total non-defense spending roughly flat for fiscal year 2024 and only permits a 1% increase for fiscal year 2025.

Defense-focused research is not exempt from the belt tightening. For instance, Congress cut DOD’s budget for basic research by 10% to $2.63 billion for fiscal year 2024, rolling it back to near the amount it received four years ago. One exception to the trend is that Congress increased spending on DOE’s nuclear weapons stewardship research, technology, and evaluation programs by 11% to $3.28 billion.

Science agencies are now bracing for another tight budget year in anticipation that the fiscal year 2025 spending cap will remain in place. Though the Biden administration has requested budget increases for most non-defense science agencies, in some cases they would only partially reverse the cuts Congress just made. For instance, the budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate would increase 3% to $7.57 billion despite Congress just having cut its budget by 6%.

Some science advocates are now pinning their hopes on the possibility of Congress boosting science budgets through special legislation. In particular, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has signaled interest in developing a follow-on to the CHIPS and Science Act that could include direct appropriations for select technology areas, analogous to the original act’s $52 billion injection into the semiconductor sector.

However, the appetite for further special measures may be thin given that Congress has written enormous checks for such legislation in recent years. These include more than four trillion dollars spent on pandemic response and recovery legislation as well as hundreds of billions of dollars spent through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

This scale of spending has stoked concerns about the national debt, which is close to eclipsing the historic peak that the U.S. incurred during World War II.

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