AAAS Finds Some Good News in R&D Budget

May 16, 2013 · 0 comments

by George Leopold, AMS Policy Program

Our friends at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have sifted through this year’s federal R&D spending and next year’s proposed budget, and the numbers in some cases are pretty ugly.

Given the current political climate and budget sequestration, however, it could have been much worse. The best news, says Matt Hourihan, director of R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS, is that the Obama administration’s FY 2014 proposal would return caps on discretionary science spending to presequester levels.

The overall budget request for nonmilitary R&D spending approaches $70 billion. If enacted, and again that’s a big if, Hourihan says that would be an all-time high.

Now that the dust has settled over sequestration, let’s look back at fiscal 2013 federal appropriations and the impact of across-the-board budget cuts on science agencies. All but the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (advanced manufacturing) took a hit, according to AAAS estimates. For example, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) R&D budget declined an estimated 4% from the previous year while NASA funding dropped by an estimated 6.6%. Other science agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were in the same range.

Overall, AAAS found, federal R&D spending will decline $9.3 billion in fiscal 2013 due to sequestration and other budget cuts. That 6.5% decline takes federal R&D spending back to 2002 levels.

For NASA, which of course plays a key role in Earth observation, the $749 million nominal cut from its fiscal 2012 budget pushes the space agency’s fiscal 2013 spending back to its 1980s spending levels, AAAS found.

As for next year, AAAS expects NASA’s R&D budget to increase by more than $1 billion (9.8%) over 2013 levels, accounting for about $11.6 billion of the proposed $144 billion federal R&D budget. The Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, is projected to account for only about $2.7 billion, while NSF would receive about $6.3 billion. (By stark contrast, and despite recent shifts toward civilian research, proposed military R&D spending next year would total $73 billion.)

Another piece of good news in the AAAS assessment is that NOAA’s R&D budget would be $733 million in 2014, a 27.7% increase over the 2012 budget. As we have noted, much of that would go for National Weather Service modernization programs, including computer modeling and networking. The emphasis here seems to be on technology for weather forecasting rather than for forecasters themselves.

Along with NOAA R&D, the U.S. Global Change Research Program and even USGS science programs might see a budget bump next year unless Congress decides otherwise.

Among the Obama administration’s investment priorities for R&D, AAAS found, was a shift “from D to R” with an additional correction toward “applied” research. Indeed, the proposed budget for nice-to-have but hard-to-fund basic research is expected to remain flat next year when adjusted for inflation.

NSF’s budget, which was heavily skewed by a huge boost from economic stimulus funding in 2009, could nevertheless benefit from an upward trend in what AAAS calls “general science.” The key focus will be on “cross-cutting innovation programs,” AAAS predicts.

So, it’s a mixed budget outlook for 2014, with sequestration likely to continue despite the fact that most budget proposals for next year seek to eliminate across-the-board cuts. The political rub, of course, is whether to cut “entitlement” programs (or what the supporters of these programs refer to as “earned benefits”) or raise taxes. Don’t expect much movement on that front any time soon.

Therefore, budget sequestration likely will remain, affecting not only federal R&D spending but most of the federal budget for the foreseeable future.

That’s why it is important for U.S. science agencies to continue working more closely to identify spending priorities before the Office of Management of Budget decides for them.

AAAS puts the question this way: “Has science hit a speed bump, or crossed over the Fiscal Cliff into Austerity Valley?” Answering his own question, AAAS budget analyst Hourihan concludes: Austerity is “the new normal.”

Parse the science organization’s budget estimates for yourself here.