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Shutdown Averted, Science Funding Still Unsettled

OCT 04, 2023
A deal in the House to avert a government shutdown has led to a crisis in the chamber’s leadership, adding fresh uncertainty to stalled budget negotiations with the Senate.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
Rep. Matt Gaetz

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), center, is surrounded by reporters on Oct. 3 after his successful motion to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from the role of speaker of the House. Gaetz filed the motion after McCarthy brokered a deal to avert a government shutdown.

(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown on Saturday, passing last-minute stopgap legislation to continue funding federal agencies until Nov. 17.

The news was a welcome surprise for science agencies, who had been bracing for a shutdown by updating their contingency plans that explain what “non-essential” work would have to be halted. Under the stopgap, known as a continuing resolution (CR), agencies can operate for the next six weeks but are generally prohibited from starting new programs. They also may be more conservative in allocating funds to existing programs since they do not know what their finalized budgets for the fiscal year will be.

The National Science Foundation, for example, limits expenditures during continuing resolutions to minimize risk, said Allena Opper, director of NSF’s nuclear physics program, at an advisory committee meeting on Oct. 4.

Opper offered a hypothetical example in which NSF operated under CRs for six months before receiving a final appropriation that cut the agency’s total budget by 3%.

“If we make grants at last year’s level for half of the year, and then an appropriation comes in that gives us a 3% reduction, then all of the grants in the last half of the year have to bear that full reduction, so they end up at a 6% reduction of available funds,” Opper said.

To avoid this situation, NSF is more cautious about awarding grants during CRs, Opper explained. If you are a grant applicant hoping to receive funds during a CR, “you may have to wait a little bit, and I’m sorry about that,” she said.

Although Congress routinely uses CRs to buy time for reaching a final agreement, the situation is particularly fraught this year. Democratic and Republican leaders remain far apart in their spending and policy goals, with limited time to resolve their differences over the 12 appropriations bills that together fund the government.

Adding complexity to the situation, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was ousted from his role as speaker of the House on Oct. 3 following party infighting over the CR deal, the first time in history a speaker has been removed in this way. The House is now in uncharted territory and will remain without a leader for at least a week, potentially delaying budget talks. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) will serve as interim speaker until a formal vote takes place.

Science funding levels hang in the balance, with multiple agencies bracing for flat or potentially reduced budgets in fiscal year 2024, which began Oct. 1.

The House and the Senate agreed to federal spending caps in May that would hold non-defense spending roughly flat for the fiscal year, following a deal negotiated by President Joe Biden and McCarthy. However, House Republicans are now angling to pass a budget that is well below those caps, whereas the Senate has hewed closer to the caps in bipartisan appropriations bills it advanced through committee this summer.

The House is considering additional cuts to the appropriations bills it advanced earlier this year, which could affect science spending proposals. For instance, the House is entertaining amendments to its appropriations bill for the Department of Energy that take aim at R&D programs.

Proposed amendments include eliminating funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, cutting an additional $1.1 billion from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and prohibiting the use of funds for the Office of Science’s Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

The House may also revise the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which funds NSF, NASA, and the Commerce Department, among other agencies. The full House Appropriations Committee has yet to approve the bill, which advanced through subcommittee in July. The subcommittee version of the bill already includes a 2% cut to NSF and a 5% cut to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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