Science

Final 2022 US science funding levels fall short of aspirations

Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an 11 March post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

Lawmakers finished negotiating appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2022 last week, marking a conclusion to the more than five months that federal agencies have been operating on temporary extensions of their previous budgets. Congress has already passed the new package, and President Biden is expected to sign it as soon as it reaches his desk.

All science agencies are set to receive funding increases, in some cases major ones, but the final outcomes generally fall well short of what Biden and congressional Democrats proposed last year. Because appropriations are subject to the Senate filibuster, Republicans were able to secure a boost in defense spending and scale back the nondefense funding raises sought by Democrats. The results are roughly in line with Republican demands for “parity” between the components of the budget, a concept that often structures cross-party negotiations over spending.

Aside from boosting defense R&D, the allocation of increases across agencies somewhat reflects Biden’s priorities in areas such as clean energy and climate. The bill also launches his proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. But other marquee proposals, such as an ARPA for Climate, did not receive funding.

Importantly, budget increases will not go as far as usual this year, given that inflation is having its most significant impact on spending power in 40 years. In addition, congressional earmarks, allowed for the first time in a decade, will eat into some agencies’ top-line budgets by directing funds to specific external projects, some of which are only tangential to the agencies’ core programs.

Outside the ordinary appropriations process, some agencies are already receiving supplementary funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Biden signed into law in November. That money is directed mostly to activities unrelated to R&D, with some exceptions, including technology demonstrations at the Department of Energy and critical minerals research initiatives at the US Geological Survey.

Additional special spending measures could further supplement this year’s research budgets. Funding for semiconductor R&D is in a strong position to pass as part of an innovation policy package built from the Senate’s US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) and the House’s America COMPETES Act of 2022. Some funding for science agencies could also be provided through a revived version of the moribund Build Back Better Act, but those prospects are deeply uncertain at the moment.

Such supplementary spending would be necessary to go any distance toward meeting the ambitious funding targets the USICA and COMPETES bills proposed for the DOE Office of Science and NSF this fiscal year. The appropriations legislation does little to address those targets, and it may be that the political realities of the budget process will derail lawmakers’ aspirations for expanding R&D, as happened in the wake of the COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010.

Another possibility is that Congress will wait for enactment of a finalized innovation policy bill and the clean slate of FY 2023 before making sweeping changes in R&D spending. In any case, the next move will be made by Biden, who is expected to release his next budget request soon.

Agency-by-agency highlights of the FY 2022 appropriations bill are outlined below. Details are available in the explanatory statements accompanying the appropriations legislation. Program-level funding outcomes are tabulated in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

DOE Office of Science

The budget for the DOE Office of Science is rising by 6% to $7.5 billion, slightly above the amount requested. Each of the office’s six main research programs will see funding boosts, with the nuclear physics and biological and environmental research programs receiving the largest percentage increases. Most major construction projects are moving forward near the requested funding levels. However, the request for upgrade projects at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider fell well short of expectations, as the Biden administration had presumed the Build Back Better Act could be used to fully fund DOE’s contribution to the project.

The bill provides flat funding of $242 million for construction of the international ITER nuclear fusion facility while increasing the non-ITER fusion portion of the budget by $41 million, to $471 million. Of that amount, the bill permits DOE to spend up to $45 million to launch the “milestone-based development” program authorized in the Energy Act of 2020, which would provide reimbursements to private fusion ventures when they achieve defined technology goals.

DOE Applied Energy R&D

The Biden administration sought sizable spending boosts across DOE’s applied energy R&D programs, including a 65% boost for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. However, Congress ultimately settled on increases of about 10% each for DOE’s renewables, fossil energy and carbon management, and nuclear energy offices.

Within the Office of Nuclear Energy, Congress has zeroed out funding for the multibillion-dollar Versatile Test Reactor project, which would establish a US-based capability for irradiating materials under conditions comparable to those that would exist in some proposed nuclear reactors. For US companies, such capabilities have generally been available only in Russia. Previously, Congress had funded VTR below the requested amounts, allocating $210 million to it so far. The Biden administration strongly supports the project and could press for a revival in its upcoming budget request.

National Nuclear Security Administration

Funding for DOE’s NNSA will rise by 5% to $20.7 billion, building on earlier budget increases that have gone primarily toward modernizing the US nuclear weapons stockpile and associated infrastructure.

The bill fully funds NNSA’s requested ramp-up for projects to reconstitute plutonium production capabilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which will be used in part to replace aging plutonium in current warheads. Meanwhile, funding for weapons research, technology, and engineering programs will remain steady overall at $2.8 billion. The inertial confinement fusion program, which nearly achieved the milestone of fusion ignition last summer, will receive roughly level funding of $580 million from that total.

NNSA’s nuclear nonproliferation R&D account will increase by 21% to $729 million, with the additional funds channeled toward monitoring foreign nuclear activities and establishing test beds that help the agency’s workforce develop its skill set.

Science funding increases, fiscal year 2022.

NSF

NSF’s top-line budget will increase by 4% to $8.8 billion, leaving the agency little budgetary room to implement new initiatives such as the technology-oriented directorate proposed in the COMPETES Act and USICA. Although the directorate’s mission is still being debated, the appropriations bill endorses creating a “Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships,” the name proposed by NSF. The agency requested $865 million to launch the initiative, a little less than half of which would be money transferred from existing programs. The bill does not specify an initial budget for the directorate but encourages it to fund at least one Regional Innovation Accelerator, a new construct proposed by NSF to seed hubs across the US that would support use-inspired R&D projects.

The bill restricts NSF from diverting existing program funds to new activities, instructing it to maintain at least level funding for “core research” and infrastructure. It also provides the requested amounts for major facility construction projects currently underway, including the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, upgrades to detectors at the Large Hadron Collider, and modernization of NSF’s bases in Antarctica.

NASA

Whereas the top-line budget of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is rising by a modest 4%, the directorate’s planetary science budget is continuing its steep climb with an increase of 16%, or $420 million. The additional funding accommodates a rapid ramp-up in the budget for the Mars Sample Return mission.

The astrophysics division may experience a squeeze, as the SOFIA airborne telescope’s operating budget will continue at its current $85 million level even as the division’s top line comes up just short of NASA’s $1.4 billion request, which presumed SOFIA’s termination. Congress instructs NASA to draw on “current and prior year resources” to fund SOFIA, and it “notes all recommendations” in the new astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, which endorsed terminating SOFIA “by 2023.” The language could be signaling that the mission’s congressional support may not last much longer.

Congress meets the administration’s request of $1.2 billion to fund work on a crewed lander for the Artemis lunar exploration campaign. The requested amount was for a lander to be provided by the company SpaceX, but the appropriation signals lawmakers’ interest in supporting a second lander project. It directs NASA to use an unspecified part of the lander funding to “make real investments in development that promote competition for the sustainable lander phase rather than additional studies.”

NIST

NIST’s top line is increasing by nearly 20% to $1.2 billion, but if earmarks are excluded the increase comes to only 3%. In total, $163 million in earmarks are directed to 20 research projects and seven construction projects, all at universities, including $60 million for upgrades to the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in the home state of Senate Appropriations Committee vice chair Richard Shelby (R-AL).

Among NIST’s core activities, Congress prioritizes programs focused on areas such as artificial intelligence, forward-looking building standards, greenhouse gas measurements, forensic science, and cybersecurity. Congress also states the bill includes “sufficient funding” to support NIST’s work to restart the reactor at its Center for Neutron Research, which has been off-line since February 2021, when a mistake made by staff during a refueling operation led to a radiation incident. Observing that the reactor is more than 50 years old, Congress encourages NIST to “engage with the academic and research community on an assessment of future needs.”

NOAA

NOAA’s main research and satellite program offices are each receiving 6% budget increases, well below the initial proposals.

The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research is getting a boost of $34 million to $648 million, with about half of the new resources allocated to climate research. Among its priorities, Congress directs the office to improve understanding of the hydroclimate of river basins in the western US and of the risks associated with climate modification methods, such as altering Earth’s radiation budget, also known as solar geoengineering. Congress encourages NOAA to lead an interagency effort to “manage near-term climate hazard risk and coordinate research in climate intervention.”

Congress largely meets the requested amounts for NOAA’s current geostationary and polar weather satellite acquisition programs, but it provides only a fraction of the request for a follow-on project to develop a new geostationary constellation. In a separate portion of NOAA’s budget, Congress earmarks about $84 million for 80 projects spanning climate and weather research, educational initiatives, coastal resiliency and restoration activities, and workforce diversity efforts.

Department of Defense

The increase in defense spending that Republicans secured has pushed funding for DOD’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation accounts past an already historically high level. Total funding for the accounts is being raised by 11% to $123 billion, with most going to later-stage prototyping and testing activities. Congress increased basic research funding by 3% to about $2.8 billion, rebuffing the 15% cut proposed by the administration. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s budget is growing by 10% to $3.8 billion, with a particular focus on supporting the second phase of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative that DARPA launched in 2017.

US Geological Survey

The USGS base budget is increasing by 6% to just under $1.4 billion. The additional funds are split across its natural hazards, water resources, ecosystems, and energy and mineral resources mission areas. USGS is also receiving $511 million over the next four years through the infrastructure act, including $167 million in the current fiscal year for establishing a government-owned, university-based facility for research in energy and minerals.

National Institutes of Health

NIH’s base budget is increasing by $2 billion to $45 billion, marking the seventh consecutive year Congress has provided the agency a multibillion-dollar raise. The new funds are distributed across NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, with each receiving a budget increase of at least 3%.

Outside NIH’s budget, the agreement includes $1 billion to establish ARPA-H, an agency proposed by Biden to drive forward high-risk, high-reward research. Although the administration requested $6.5 billion for ARPA-H within NIH, some advocates have argued that the new agency should be placed outside NIH to help foster an innovative culture. The appropriation allocates the funds to the Department of Health and Human Services but allows the department to transfer authority for ARPA-H to NIH or any other HHS unit.

The $1 billion for ARPA-H is not contingent on Congress passing separate legislation to authorize the agency. The authorization legislation is still early in the negotiation process. A bill to establish ARPA-H within NIH was introduced in the Senate last week, whereas the House is considering a separate proposal introduced last fall that would make ARPA-H a separate HHS agency.

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