Looks like the Grinch Won: Cuts and Compromise on Research Funding

On December 18, 2007, the House and Senate approved and sent to the President a $517 billion catch-all appropriations bill (H.R. 2764), with funding levels much lower than initially passed by the House and Senate.

On December 18, 2007, the House and Senate approved and sent to the President a $517 billion catch-all appropriations bill (H.R. 2764), with funding levels much lower than initially passed by the House and Senate. SPIN readers may recall that the original versions of FY 2008 spending legislation were fairly generous to the National Science Foundation (NSF), though somewhat less so to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the White House vetoed the earlier legislation and the House of Representatives fell two votes short of overriding the veto. When the congressional leadership went back to the drawing board to draft legislation that President Bush would support, the spending proposals for research and federal student aid dropped dramatically.

To reach a spending compromise with the White House, the Democratic leadership imposed a 1.7 percent across-the-board rescission on all domestic programs in the previous bills. Despite the cuts to valued programs, the bill preserves thousands of earmarks sought by lawmakers from both parties in an attempt to win lawmakers’ support.

The NIH will see its budget for 2008 shrink by almost $1 billion from levels of financial support agreed to by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in compromise legislation passed by both chambers earlier this year. This will be the fourth straight year that the agency's budget falls behind the rate of biomedical inflation, which the Government has estimated at 3.7 percent. The NIH would receive $28.94 billion, an increase of only 0.4 percent over the previous year.

The omnibus bill does not mirror the president's proposal in some details. While the total spending level is similar, the new bill includes added "emergency spending" funds for veterans' health care, border security, and other priorities. In doing so, Congress will avert deeper cuts to Pell Grants and three other programs designed to help needy students: Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, and the Leveraging Education Assistance Programs. Spending on the Pell Grant program would be trimmed by $69-million.

The National Science Foundation and the bipartisan initiative to increase funds for basic research to enhance global competitiveness also received lower increases. The NSF will receive $6.07 billion in 2008, an increase of only 2.5 percent over last year's budget, or less than the projected rate of inflation. That's a major turnaround from earlier this year, when President Bush proposed an increase of 9 percent and Congress suggested somewhat more than he did.

In the final version, NSF’s spending for research-specific activities rises by only 1.2 percent, to $4.82 billion. The increase for NSF's education division is somewhat larger, 3.9 percent, or $725 million. Still, that is below President Bush's request. Congress would increase spending by 50 percent, to $15 million, for the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which pays college tuition for students who promise to teach mathematics or science in public schools after graduation.

Under the omnibus bill, financing for NASA's programs in earth and space science will rise to $5.57 billion, an increase of 3.4 percent. However, despite those increases, funding for life sciences and human factors/aeronautics will decrease. The bill would also provide $2 million for two new programs to help colleges train more graduates in mathematics, science, and foreign languages to become schoolteachers. That is far short of the $276-million that Congress authorized for those programs this summer in separate legislation, the America Competes Act, to promote economic competitiveness.

We at SPIN appreciate the advocacy of many of our readers who wrote and called Representatives and Senators in support of higher research funding. Even though the results were less than we hoped, your efforts are meaningful and cumulative. We need to continue to educate Congress in 2008. Watch this space for additional news on research funding and opportunities to make your voice heard in support of science.