Federal Funding for Research in Weather, Water, and Climate

by Paul Higgins, AMS Policy Program Director
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut funding for Earth system science and services. One bill cuts roughly 5% each from NASA’s Earth Sciences and the total NOAA budget. That same bill also cuts more than 16% from the total funding for NSF’s Geoscience and Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) directorates. In a separate bill, the House voted to cut more than 9% from Biological and Environmental Research (BER) in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (though the name can be misleading to some, BER houses the research most relevant to our community).
Both bills passed with support from nearly all House Republicans and opposition from nearly all House Democrats. So the cuts suggest that House Republicans do not think as favorably of the Earth sciences as the AMS community might like.
To become law, the Senate and the President would need to sign off on these cuts. That doesn’t appear likely at this time but the paths to agreement for any funding bill—which must be approved every year—are far too complicated to predict. The good news is that Republicans in the Senate (and Democrats in both chambers) appear more predisposed to fund weather, water, and climate research and the President pushed for increases in weather and climate research through his budget proposal earlier this year. The bad news is that the House, Senate, and President must all ultimately agree on funding decisions and even a compromise does not look like good news for our community.
Two contributing factors to the House funding bills are particularly noteworthy. First, the funding for Earth sciences is at least partially reflective of the differing views on how best to deal with the larger budget situation.
The Federal budget consists of two types of spending: 1) mandatory programs (e.g., Medicare and social security), and 2) discretionary programs. Discretionary spending is often further divided into defense and non-defense spending. Much of the funding for science (e.g., NSF, NASA, NOAA, DoE, and USGS) is in the non-defense discretionary (NDD) category.
The President’s proposed budget for NDD spending in FY 2016 of $526 billion exceeds by $33 billion the proposals created by Republican leadership in the House and Senate of $493 billion. Note, however, that even the President’s proposed budget remains roughly $15 billion (2.8 percent) below FY 2010 levels (assuming a rate of inflation of 1.7% per year). So the Federal budget for research (along with everything else) is under pressure even under the President’s higher numbers.
Some of this ties back to the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which made direct cuts to discretionary spending (e.g., funding for science) along with even deeper spending cuts through “sequestration”—automatic across-the-board cuts to both defense and NDD that took hold because Congress failed to agree to a more comprehensive deficit reduction plan (which would have involved a combination of tax increases and more targeted spending cuts). The sequestration cut to NDD is an additional reduction of about six percent.
This overarching budget situation (or conflict) is both a justification for cutting programs and politically expedient cover for those who want to make funding cuts for other reasons, which brings us to the second factor.
The second contributing factor to the House funding bills is the President’s aggressive efforts at climate change risk management. These efforts, which have increased over the last year or so, appear to have angered some, particularly in the House. That anger seems to be being expressed in funding decisions for all of the Earth sciences. At first look, that may not seem to make sense because climate science is a tiny fraction of the Earth sciences and climate change risk management is only tangentially related to climate science. However, the Earth sciences are somewhat easier politically and procedurally for members of congress to focus on than climate science would be alone.
No matter the cause, our community has a strong interest in helping Congress better understand the value of the Earth sciences to the nation and the world. AMS sent a letter to all members of Congress to raise awareness of our contribution (http://ametsoc.org/sss/letters_geosciences_support_may_2015.pdf) but similar efforts from individual scientists throughout the country will likely be needed if policy makers are to view the Earth sciences in a more favorable light.
Strong positive messages, such as those in the AMS letter, are most likely to convey effectively the importance of our science and services to the nation.
Weather and climate information helps society manage risks and realize opportunities associated with existing weather patterns and changes to the climate system (natural and human caused). The services that result can include weather forecasts and warnings, flood and drought prediction and monitoring, natural hazard preparedness and response, public health monitoring, disease prevention and control, assessment and management of fire risk, and decision support for water resources, agriculture, transportation, and other key economic sectors.
Thoughtful engagement with the policy process has the potential to help shift the focus in Congress to the critical role the Earth sciences play in advancing the national agenda. That would help secure the support and resources that our community needs to make critical information and services available.