Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

NSF’s research budget bears much of the spending reduction agreed upon by the Senate panel.

The most recent Congressional action on a science-related portion of the budget for the fiscal year starting October 1 shows that the biotechnology community will not be spared the fiscal pain of Washington, though, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives still have to agree to details.

On September 15, the Senate Committee on Appropriations cut spending for several science agencies in the $52.701 billion plan it approved for the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) portions of the FY 2012 federal budget. The plan is $626 million, or 1.2%, below the total CJS budget for the current fiscal year.

Among losers is the NSF. Its FY 2012 budget has been sliced $162 million, or 2.3%, from the current fiscal year’s $6.86 billion. This was also the amount budgeted for NSF by the House Appropriations Committee when it approved a CJS budget for the coming fiscal year. Senate appropriations went nearly 14% below the $7.767 billion that President Barack Obama proposed earlier this year.

“The funding level for NSF is disappointing,” Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GEN.

One possible explanation: Senators were intent on restoring funding for other programs funded by the bill, even though it meant accepting lower funding for NSF and another agency involved in the life sciences, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The full appropriations committee pared funding for NIST by $70 million, or 9.3%, to $680 million. It did, however, keep funding flat for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), rebuffing a House effort to slash agency funding in a dispute over cooperation with China.

Neither the CJS appropriation bill nor any other appropriation bill is likely to reach the Senate floor. House and Senate leaders were set this week to start talks on an “omnibus” bill combining all 12 appropriations bills that comprise the federal budget, but lawmakers seem more focused this week on a continuing resolution that sets spending through November 18 along the lines of the $1.043 trillion Budget Control Act of 2011 enacted last month.

The appropriation bills offer insight into how Congress has attempted thus far to balance the desire to fund popular science programs with the promise of its politically divided leadership to roll back spending, end the recent era of trillion-dollar annual budget deficits, and finally start paying down the $14.7 trillion-and-growing national debt.

Mixed Signals for NSF

NSF’s research budget bears much of the spending reduction agreed upon by the Senate panel. The agency’s “research and related activities” funding would dip 2.2%, or $120.875 million, from the current fiscal year under the Senate appropriations plan, from just under $5.564 billion to $5.443 billion. President Obama had proposed $6.253 billion.

House appropriations, by contrast, actually increased NSF’s research budget by $43 million, or 0.77%, above FY ’11, resulting in $5.607 billion. That figure is about $646.6 million, or just over 10%, less than Obama’s proposal.

In return for the extra money, the House panel made clear it expects NSF to follow through with a set of program cuts and eliminations it proposed earlier this year. Plans aim to shrink or nix programs NSF deems outdated, duplicative, or unable to achieve its goals.

NSF’s Research Initiation to Broaden Participation in Biology program—designed to develop more biologists among certain ethnic groups—would end with the current fiscal year. Funding stood at $1.91 million in FY 2010 and $2 million earlier this year before the April budget deal. “It did not achieve the goal of broadening participation in biology; the number of proposals from underrepresented groups did not increase,” NSF stated in its FY 2012 Budget Request to Congress.

House appropriations declared that the cuts and extra funding “will allow NSF to expand or enhance its activities across a range of research areas, with significant impacts on national security or economic competitiveness. The committee directs NSF to prioritize these new activities toward cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure improvements; advanced manufacturing as well as materials research; and disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in the natural and physical sciences, math, and engineering.”

During FY 2010, the most recent year for which NSF has figures, the agency reportedly awarded 20,632 research support grants totaling $5.967 billion, for an average of $289,201.48 per grant. At this average, with the Senate cuts hold, NSF will be able to dole out 418 fewer grants.

NSF funds 20% of basic science research. The vast majority of the FY 2010 research support grants, 18,500, were awarded to university researchers receiving a total of $4.626 billion. Another 853 grants totaling $193.98 million were awarded to small businesses, while industry accounted for just 30 grants but $207.3 million. The federal government accounted for $172.6 million in 108 grants.

Additionally, the House is calling for stronger oversight of contingency budgets for construction projects, urging the agency’s inspector general to focus on oversight of spending, and directing NSF to submit a report on its progress toward that goal. The panel has requested a Government Accountability Office study of NSF contracting practices.

Among proposed Senate appropriations’ cuts is NSF’s “education and human resources” spending, which supports programs that promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The committee agreed to spend $829 million, which is 3.7%, or $32.034 million, below the soon-to-end fiscal year and 9%, or $82.2 million, below Obama’s budget request.

Some NSF programs and activities were spared, though, by the Senate committee:

  • Spending for “major” research equipment and facilities construction would stay at $117.055 million; that’s just over half of the $224.68 million proposed by Obama. The House committee would trim that by almost 15%, or just over $17 million, to an even $100 million in FY 2012.
  • The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) would stay at $146.83 million. EPSCoR is designed to advance competitiveness in 27 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which receive a smaller amount of NSF R&D money. EPSCoR is more popular with politicos than many other programs funded by the agency, Samuel Rankin, chairman of the Coalition for National Science Funding, told GEN.

The sole life science priority identified by House appropriations was neuroscience. “The committee directs NSF to establish a Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience crosscutting theme to guide future budget formulation in this area and to increase its investments in research through this theme in fiscal year 2012,” the panel stated.

House appropriations also directed NSF to report back on how Washington and the science community could better balance public access to data accelerated by the internet with researchers’ ability to retain intellectual property rights for “potentially lucrative” findings and with the government’s ability to protect scientific IP with “significant economic or security implications.”

OSTP and China Conflict

Faring better with Senate appropriations is the OSTP. The panel approved a $6 million budget for the office, which gives President Obama scientific and technical advice, compared with the current $6.647 million.

That’s more than double the $3 million approved for it by the House appropriations committee. House Appropriations chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) wiped out half of OSTP’s budget after accusing the agency of defying Congress by violating Public Law 112-10. The measure forbids U.S. government agencies “to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” unless those activities are specifically authorized by a subsequent law. Wolf has long faulted China’s communist government for stealing U.S. industrial secrets and launching cyber attacks against the U.S., assertions China has denied.

In its CJS report, though, the Senate appropriations committee left little doubt that it has no trouble with NSF engaging with China or just about any other nation: “The committee directs OSTP to remain engaged with international partners in order to pursue large projects frugally, in partnership. This will allow the United States to make the highest and best use of its limited science funding while ensuring that our scientists have access to world-leading facilities.”

Cuts at NIST

As for NIST, Senate appropriations did away with all funding for all new grants under its competitive construction program and trimmed construction funding to $60 million in FY ’12 from $69.86 million in the current fiscal year; Obama proposed $84.6 million. The House went a little further with the scalpel, cutting NIST construction spending to $55.38 million, with $25.38 million set aside for a renovation of the agency’s Building 1 in Boulder, CO.

NIST also saw the Senate panel eliminate funding for two of its programs, the Technology Innovation Program, which the agency has used for funding biomanufacturing programs, and the Baldridge Performance Excellence Program, which promotes management among businesses, schools, and other organizations.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) blamed the subcommittee cuts on the increasingly chilly climate for federal spending. “We’ve gone beyond frugality and are into austerity,” Mikulski said during the CJS subcommittee’s September 14 “markup” hearing. “This stringent budget environment required the subcommittee to make difficult decisions.”

And those difficult decisions are also likely to be agreed upon by the full House and Senate by the time they get a budget to vote upon, whether through the omnibus bill or piecemeal. The result, as in the CJS budget, will be cuts to grant and other programs even for agencies like NSF, which lawmakers have extolled lately as a tool in regaining ground lost by the U.S. in biotechnology and the rest of the science and technology fields.

Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

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