President Obama's Final Budget Sets Ambitious, but Unlikely Goals for Science Funding

On 9 February 2016, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2017. Although the plan adheres to the $1.07 trillion cap for discretionary spending that was enacted into law in late 2015, the president’s budget request proposes a significant amount of new mandatory spending. The White House is seeking mandatory spending for agencies and programs that have not historically been funded by the budget mechanism. Mandatory spending has traditionally been reserved for such programs as Social Security and Medicare. The proposal to fund science programs, in part, via mandatory spending is intended to provide a mechanism to bypass existing budget caps.

Most federal science agencies would receive a budget increase if the president’s budget plan were enacted. The administration proposes $152 billion for federal research and development, a $6 billion increase (+$4 billion in mandatory spending, +$2 billion in discretionary spending).

The president proposes to ramp up investments for several of his priorities, including clean energy, neuroscience, climate science, and water research. Notably, several agencies propose to use new mandatory funding to support increases for extramural research grants, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and Department of Agriculture.

Read a full analysis of the president’s budget request prepared by AIBS at www.aibs.org/public-policy/budget_report.html.

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Budget Request for NSF Offers Little New Discretionary Funds

The $7.6 billion budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for FY 2017 would provide a modest 1.3 percent increase. The administration is also touting a request for $400 million in new mandatory funding. These new funds would support early career scientists. The agency reports that approximately 800 additional research grants could be supported with this funding, bringing the NSF-wide funding rate up to 23 percent—an increase of 1 percent.

In spite of the prospect of a large bolus of new mandatory research funding, support for half of NSF’s cross-disciplinary initiatives would remain flat or decline. Although most are modest reductions, the Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability initiative would decline by nearly 30 percent, as the program enters its final year. The Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) program would be terminated, however, research directorates would continue to support “INSPIRE-like” interdisciplinary research. Other programs that would be cut include research to better understand the human brain and research at the interface of biological, mathematical, and physical sciences.

Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems, which was first proposed in the FY 2016 budget request, would benefit from a $13.5 million increase (+27.7 percent). The initiative supports research on the natural, social, and human-built factors involved in these interconnected systems.

Education activities are proposed for a 2.1 percent increase, with additional support possible from mandatory spending.

A $43.0 million (13.0 percent) increase would support Agency Operations and Award Management. The agency requested the majority of these funds to support the relocation of NSF’s headquarters.

Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction would slightly decline due to the completion of construction of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

NSF support for graduate students would increase by 1 percent in 2017. Funding for the Graduate Research Fellowship would be flat, but NSF Research Traineeships funding would increase. NSF would also create a pilot program to enable trainees to participate in federal internships.

NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate

The proposed 0.2 percent boost ($1.6 million) for the Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) is on par with the funding increased proposed for most other NSF research directorates.

Although very little new discretionary spending is proposed for BIO, a $44.8 million increase in mandatory spending is recommended. According to NSF, “The major focus of the mandatory funding is support for core activities and support of early career investigators. Special emphasis will be placed on research that aligns with the new BIO emphasis on Rules of Life that includes areas such as the genotype to phenotype challenge, plant and microbial sciences, including study of the microbiome, synthetic biology, and the origin of life.”

If new mandatory funding is provided, it is projected that 200 new research awards could be made by the BIO directorate, although the number of applications is anticipated to grow by 800. Funding rates have “become dangerously low” according to NSF. BIO provides 68 percent of federal funding for non-medical, basic life sciences research at academic institutions.

Although the 2017 discretionary request leaves little room for new initiatives, the mandatory spending request would support major funding increases for Rules of Life ($13.0 million) and clean energy technology (+$30.8 million). The new Rules of Life initiative would support quantitative, interdisciplinary approaches that advance basic biological understanding of the rules of life. The budget request also includes a proposal for a new Ideas Lab in collaboration with NASA to support potentially transformative research on the origins of life.

Mandatory spending would also support a significant increase for early career awards to support postdoctoral fellows and first and second-time NSF grantees. In response to concerns about the quality of student training, BIO proposes to limit funding to support graduate students on research grants. Instead, the directorate would support more Graduate Research Fellowships and NSF Research Traineeships and create a $6 million pilot program, the BIO Research Training Grant.

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NIH Budget Would Invest in Obama's Signature Initiatives

The president’s budget proposes a 3.4 percent decrease in discretionary funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The budget also includes $1.8 billion in new mandatory spending that would be directed towards key programs, such as the National Cancer Moonshot.

New funding is proposed to support several ongoing initiatives and a major endeavor President Obama highlighted in his 2016 State of the Union address. $680 million dollars have been requested to jumpstart the National Cancer Moonshot, a broad-reaching cancer research initiative led by Vice President Biden. An additional $100 million dollars would be directed to the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) that aims to tailor medical treatments to individual patients; the additional funds would allow for a ramp up of the PMI Cohort Program and volunteer participation. NIH is also looking to boost the ongoing Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain, requesting a $195 million budget for FY 2017 (+$45 million).

NIH estimates supporting 9,946 new competing research project grants (RPGs) in FY 2017. This is a decrease of 807 from FY 2016. Noncompeting RPGs are proposed to increase by 1,241. The agency claims that this reflects the large increase in competing grants awarded in FY 2016, which are now transitioning to being noncompeting. The success rate for competing RPGs, however, would fall from 19.2 percent to 17.5 percent in FY 2017.

Intramural research would receive a $32.7 million increase.

Funding for research training programs would grow by $18.2 million in FY 2017, with stipend rates increasing by 2 percent. Full-time trainee positions would rise by 225 positions.

Also related to workforce development, NIH would create a pilot program to award longer grants “to provide more stable support for investigators.”

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Targeted Increases Proposed for NOAA Research Programs

Under the president’s budget, funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would increase by 1.3 percent to $5.9 billion. In total, $522 million is proposed for research.

The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would receive a 7.8 percent increase. Climate research activities would swell by $30.8 million; about half of this funding would support regional climate assessments and information sharing. Funding for competitive research grants on climate impacts on fish stocks would increase by $5.8 million. An $11.7 million increase is proposed to expand an ocean acidification observing network to nearshore waters. Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes research would be cut by $10.5 million (-4.8 percent) if the budget is enacted as proposed. Affected programs include cooperative research institutes, marine aquaculture, and ocean exploration. The National Sea Grant College Program would fund 20 fewer research and extension projects.

The FY 2017 budget proposes decreased funding for the National Ocean Service (-5.3 percent). Within this program, an increase is proposed for competitively awarded research to address coastal ocean issues including harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and coastal ecosystem management (+$4.0 million).

Funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service would increase by 4.6 percent. An increase is sought for ecosystem-based solutions for fisheries management (+$5.9 million). NOAA is also proposing to rebuild a fisheries lab on Puget Sound.

NOAA proposes to make a smaller contribution to education programs in FY 2017. Competitive education grants would be terminated (-$3.0 million), as would regional watershed education programs (-$7.2 million).

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House Passes Bill to Limit NSF Awards to the 'National Interest'

The House of Representatives recently passed the “Scientific Research in the National Interest Act” largely along party lines. The bill would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to publish written justifications for each award it makes.

In spite of a veto threat from the White House, four Democrats joined 229 Republicans in support of the measure. The rest of the Democratic caucus and seven Republicans opposed the legislation.

During floor debate, several members cited examples of “questionable” awards made by NSF. Most research grants cited were social science or climate science projects, such as research on human-set fires in New Zealand.

H.R. 3293 specifies that NSF could only award a grant if the agency determines the project has the potential to increase U.S. economic competitiveness, advance human health and welfare, improve the scientific workforce, increase scientific literacy, increase industry and academic partnerships, support national defense, or promote the progress of science.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson offered an amendment that would have replaced the above criteria with a determination that the award is consistent with NSF’s mission and existing merit review criteria. That amendment failed 177 to 232.

Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s science advisor, called the legislation “unnecessary and potentially damaging… NSF’s merit-review process is designed to, and does, determine which proposals for such research are most worthy of Federal funding. No further certification of national interest and worthiness is required beyond a proposal’s having survived the NSF’s merit-review process.”

The Obama Administration stated in it’s statement of administration policy: “Contrary to its stated purpose, H.R. 3293 would add nothing to accountability in Federal funding for scientific research, while needlessly adding to bureaucratic burdens and overhead at the NSF.”

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National Academies Releases Report on Integrating Research into Undergraduate STEM Curriculum

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) recently released a report titled Integrating Discovery-Based Research into the Undergraduate Curriculum. The report summarizes the results of a convocation held in May 2015 to discuss various approaches to course-based undergraduate research experiences (CURE) for students.

The workshop was organized by NAS with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to examine models of CURE, discuss existing case studies, and report on opportunities and challenges of implementing these approaches.

The report states that there is evidence to suggest that engaging undergraduate students in research experience early on is an effective strategy to retain STEM students and improve scientific literacy. According to the report, integrating course-based research into the undergraduate curriculum is more feasible than providing individual mentored research experience to students due to limitations in lab space and resources.

The report suggests that the use of course-based approaches to provide undergraduates with research experiences have increased in the past decade, particularly after the release of the report on improving undergraduate STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in 2012. The NAS workshop in 2015 attempted to discuss approaches and challenges associated with CURE in more detail.

The report explores several aspects of CURE, including the historical context for course-based research, the ongoing challenges associated with these approaches, leveraging available resources to increase access to research opportunities, the challenges of scaling up, and institutional strategies and funding structures necessary for success.

There is currently a follow-up study underway, where 14 experts from a wide range of fields are examining undergraduate STEM research experiences more comprehensively. The committee aims to assess and compare the effectiveness and quality of these research experiences, examine their benefits to students and institutions, and determine the associated costs. More information about this initiative sponsored by the National Science Foundation is available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/CurrentProjects/DBASSE_090473.

The complete NAS report is available at http://dels.nas.edu/Workshop-Summary/Integrating-Discovery-Based-Research-into/21851.

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Upcoming Webinar on R&D in the President's Budget Request

The AIBS Leadership in Biology series will continue on 25 February 2016 with a webinar that analyzes President Obama’s final budget request to Congress. Learn about new science initiatives the Obama Administration is proposing for fiscal year 2017 and what could be in store for existing research programs. The webinar is free to attend, but advance registration is required at http://www.aibs.org/events/leadership/a-look-at-the-fy-2017-rd-budget.html.

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Coming Next Month: Using Gene Drives to Counter Zika, an AIBS Webinar

The rapid spread of the Zika virus in the Americas has prompted international concern because of its apparent link to birth defects, including microcephaly, in infants born to infected women. The virus may also be linked to cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disabling immune disorder. The World Health Organization has declared the Zika outbreak an international health emergency.

The virus is spread by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, which also transmit dengue and chikungunya virus, among other pathogens. Suppressing these mosquitoes would therefore likely limit the spread of these diseases as well as Zika. One way to suppress Aedes populations now being researched would involve a “gene drive,” a genetic construct that once introduced into wild populations is expected to spread rapidly. Such a construct could be designed to bring about a population crash, for example by distorting the sex ratio in mosquito populations. Despite the promise, using gene drives to control wild species raises ethical questions that are only now being addressed.

In this AIBS webinar, prominent experts will address what we know about the epidemiology and clinical manifestations of Zika, the status of research on gene drives that might be able to control Aedes populations, and ethical considerations around the use of gene drives.

Speakers:

  • Davidson H. Hamer, MD, Boston University School of Public Health
  • Zach N. Adelman, PhD, Virginia Tech
  • Sahotra Sarkar, PhD, University of Texas, Austin

Registration for this important webinar program will open soon at www.aibs.org.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center.

The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers.

The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to policy.aibs.org to get started.

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