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Congress takes first spending steps, with good news for U.S. research agencies

Given the availability of more money, spending panels in the U.S. House of Representatives are proposing funding levels that approach the large increases that President Joe Biden has requested next year for several federal research agencies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) would get hefty increases of 15% and 13%, respectively, in bills taken up today by two House appropriations subcommittees, the first step in the process of setting annual funding levels. NASA science programs would rise by 10% to nearly $8 billion, and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE) would grow by 4% to $7.32 billion. Core research programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology would grow by nearly 20%, to $938 million.

Relieved of an annual spending cap that has been in effect for the past decade, the House Committee on Appropriations has 8% more to allocate for all discretionary programs—some $1.5 trillion—for the 2022 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. And the science agencies appear to be benefiting from that largesse. The final numbers won’t be known for several months, however, and must be reconciled with a parallel budget process not yet underway in the Senate.

Here are some of the top-line numbers released yesterday.

NIH

The NIH total of $49 billion falls short of the $52 billion that Biden requested in May. And the Labor-Health and Human Services panel would give Biden less than half of what he wants for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a new entity that would support high-risk research. It would allocate only $3 billion over 3 years for ARPA-H, rather than $6.5 billion.

The $3 billion increase to the agency’s base budget “will allow NIH to expand research capacity across multiple disease areas and disciplines while also funding other priority initiatives,” says Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The spending panel estimates its level would allow increases of at least 5% in the budgets of each of NIH’s existing 27 institutes and centers.

NSF

The House Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS[CM1] ) spending panel is proposing a 13.5% boost for NSF in fiscal year 2022, to $9.63 billion. That is less than the 20% hike—to $10.2 billion—that Biden requested. Most of that shortfall is absorbed by the agency’s research account, which would grow by 11%, to $7.7 billion, instead of the 18% boost that Biden is seeking. It also trimmed by two-thirds the agency’s request to grow its operating budget by 35% to account for a new directorate and ease a heavy workload on program managers. The panel kept nearly intact the president’s 33% boost in NSF’s education directorate, increasing it by 30%, to $1.27 billion.

NASA science

The CJS panel’s mark of $7.97 billion is a tad—$35 million—above the Biden administration’s overall request, an increase of $668 million from this year. The proposal includes $2.25 billion for earth science, a 12% increase to support the development of the Earth System Observatory, and $3.23 billion for planetary science. That latter figure covers an 18% increase the administration sought to support missions including: Mars Sample Return; the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, which is a space-based infrared telescope that will detect dangerous asteroids; and the Mars Ice Mapper, which will identify valuable ice deposits on the planet’s surface. Overall, the House supported NASA at $25.04 billion, slightly above the Biden administration’s request—potentially one of the largest budgets in the agency’s history.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The CJS bill also covers the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would receive $6.46 billion, $1.03 billion above this year’s levels. This increased spending would go toward climate research and weather forecasting improvements, among other areas, the panel said, though exact details were limited. The House plan falls short of the Biden administration’s request for $6.9 billion.

DOE science

DOE’s Office of Science would grow by 4.2%, to $7.32 billion, under legislation taken up today by the energy and water subcommittee. That is $120 million short of the president’s request. But two other DOE research programs would get a bonanza, reflecting an emphasis by Democratic legislators on doing more to combat climate change. The budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy would jump 41%, to $600 million. And DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would grow by 32%, to $3.77 billion—although the administration had requested $4.73 billion.