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Final 2014 Budget Helps Science Agencies Rebound

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Science  17 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6168, pp. 237
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6168.237

The ghost of former President George W. Bush permeates the 2014 budget that Congress was expected to approve this week. His presence is good news for physical scientists, but less cheery for biomedical researchers.

On 10 December, legislators had struck a spending deal that eased the pain of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. It called for $1.012 trillion in 2014 discretionary spending, some $44 billion more than would have been available under a 2011 agreement that called for reducing the federal deficit by a trillion dollars over the next decade. But it took until 13 January for lawmakers to decide how to divvy up the money.

For agencies that provide major support for the physical sciences, the new budget represents a healthy boost over 2013 spending levels, which were depressed by the sequester's 5% bite. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will receive $7.17 billion, an increase of 4.2%, for example, and NASA's science programs will get $5.15 billion, a 7.7% jump. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science enjoys a 9.7% increase, to $5.07 billion, and DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy gets an 11.2% boost to $280 million. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology will see its budget grow 10.4%, to $850 million.

Except for NASA, those agencies were all part of a 2006 initiative launched by the Bush administration to increase funding for the physical sciences. Congress formalized the idea in a 2007 law, the America COMPETES Act. Although agencies never received the generous funding called for by COMPETES, its message appears to have survived: The physical sciences need to be boosted to help the U.S. economy remain strong. President Barack Obama has continued that theme in his budget requests, including last spring's bid for big boosts at several agencies (see table).

COMPETES did not cover the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose budget had doubled between 1998 and 2004, to $27.2 billion. Since then, it has received much smaller boosts—with the huge exception of the 2009 stimulus, a one-time boost of $10.4 billion. Congress maintained that pattern of smaller increases this year: NIH's 2014 budget will rise by 3.5%, to $29.9 billion.

"It's hard not to be pleased with a billion-dollar increase," says David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges. But some biomedical lobbyists remain disappointed. It "won't adequately reverse the damage done by last year's budget sequester and ensure the nation's biomedical research enterprise makes continued progress," says Carrie Wolinetz of United for Medical Research, a coalition of academic and industry groups.

The final spending plan wraps up 12 individual appropriation bills into a 1582-page package that, despite the absence of actual earmarks, is stuffed with provisions addressing the concerns of individual legislators. For example, NASA is asked to carve out $80 million from its science budget to develop plans for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. NSF is told that several major new facilities already under construction should get priority, leaving its only requested new start, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, with only about half of what NSF requested. In a rare display of support in these tight fiscal times, lawmakers also fully funded the president's request for two NSF activities—the international ocean drilling program and the Noyce scholars program to train science teachers.

Lawmakers also showed their support for the domestic fusion science program at DOE. They rejected proposed cuts to several domestic facilities, and told DOE it could spend only $22 million of its planned $200 million contribution to ITER, an international fusion test reactor under construction in France, until ITER puts its financial house in order.

Another portion of the massive bill orders NIH to reopen a tiny science education office it had shuttered last fall and resume generating lesson plans for teachers and museums based on new medical research. Those activities were shut down last spring at the same time Obama proposed a major reorganization of federal science education programs. But Congress has rejected the plan and now told NIH to resume its precollege education activities.

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