Congress poised to boost U.S. science funding, launch new health agency 

U.S. research agencies would get budget boosts of roughly 5% this year under a final 2022 spending bill that congressional leaders unveiled early today and hope to pass in the next few days. But those amounts fall far short of aspirational funding levels for several science agencies that Congress is weighing under separate legislation now being negotiated.

The 2741-page appropriations measure, if approved, would lift a spending freeze that has been in effect since the start of the 2022 fiscal year on 1 October. Lacking a final budget, Congress kept the government operating through a series of continuing resolutions and, before the bill passes, may need one more extending into next week. The freeze has prevented agencies from expanding existing programs or launching any new initiatives, including the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) to develop cutting-edge medical treatments and a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The so-called omnibus bill would end that paralysis. NIH’s overall 2022 budget, for example, would increase by 5.3%, to $45 billion, with language requiring each of its 27 institutes and centers to grow by at least 3.4%. The bill also gives the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) parent body, a budget of $1 billion to create ARPA-H.

NSF’s overall budget would rise by 4.1%, to $8.84 billion, although none of it is designated for new programs within the technology directorate. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would get a 6.4% boost, to $7.48 billion, while NASA’s science program would rise by 4%, to $7.61 billion. Smaller science agencies would see similar increases, including nearly 8% more for in-house research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and 6% more for all activities at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Civilian and defense spending would grow by nearly the same rate under the bill—6.7% and 5.6%, respectively. That is not what President Joe Biden had in mind last spring when he asked Congress for a 16% boost in civilian programs and only 1.8% more for defense. But fueled by rising tensions with China and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, conservatives pushed successfully for a more even split. Historically, science budgets have grown at a similar pace as overall domestic spending, and 2022 appears to be no exception.

Here are highlights of what the spending bill means for two key agencies (This graphic from AAAS, which publishes Science, compares final numbers at several agencies with earlier proposals):

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NIH: The $2.25 billion increase for NIH is smaller than the $3.5 billion boost for NIH’s base budget passed last summer by the House of Representatives and the extra $2.6 billion proposed by Senate appropriators. It’s also slightly below Biden’s request.

The bill stands up ARPA-H to fund breakthrough research on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, ALS, and cancer, but at a fraction of the $6.5 billion that Biden requested. It also does not resolve a fight over where the agency would be located. Many groups pushing for its creation argued that ARPA-H needed to be outside NIH to ensure it did not end up following NIH’s more conservative research funding model. The Biden administration wanted it housed at NIH so it could draw on the existing agency’s expertise. The spending bill strikes a compromise, giving the HHS secretary 30 days to decide where it should be located, including at NIH.

Within the NIH, the National Cancer Institute receives a 5.4% increase, to $6.9 billion, to cope with soaring numbers of grant applications. Research on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, which Congress has expanded fivefold in the past 7 years, rises another $298 million to $3.5 billion. Other areas designated for increases include research on opioids, health disparities, and mental health effects of COVID-19.

NSF: NSF officials had high hopes of a major spending hike in 2022 after the Biden administration requested a 20% increase for the agency and bills to make NSF a major beneficiary of increased federal spending, to compete with China’s emergence as a science superpower, advanced in both chambers of Congress. But fiscal realities dashed those hopes. In fact, its $351-million overall increase is less than the additional $500 million Biden had requested for new programs within a new directorate at NSF labeled technology, innovation, and partnerships (TIP).

One big loser is NSF’s vision for TIP to support 10 regional innovation accelerators, each funded at $20 million a year. Although legislators endorsed the concept, saying that “good ideas and high-quality research are not bound to certain geographical areas but exist across the country,” they didn’t earmark any money for the program. Instead, they told NSF to try to fund “at least one” center from its overall budget. NSF has already shifted several existing programs to the new directorate, and some of those will grow under its 2022 appropriation.

DOE: Legislators hewed closely to the president’s wishes in boosting the budget of the agency’s Office of Science by $449 million (6.4%). They not only topped his request by $35 million, to $7.48 billion, but also followed Biden’s blueprint to give each of the office’s six research programs a boost of at least 2%. Still, three programs faired particularly well.

In line with the administration’s emphasis on climate research, spending for biological and environmental research (BER) would climb by 8.2%, to $815 million. Within that program, funding for research on earth and environmental systems, which includes DOE climate modeling, rises by $60 million, or 17%. Spending on nuclear physics jumps by 14.6%, to $728 million, including $58 million for the first year of operations and research at the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $730-million accelerator at Michigan State University to produce novel and fleeting atomic nuclei. Fusion energy sciences will grow much faster than the administration’s slim 0.4% boost, increasing by 6.1% to $713 million.

Spending would also rise in other areas. The budget for advanced scientific computing research, which supports DOE’s supercomputers, inches up 2% to $1.04 billion. The amount for basic energy sciences, which supports work on chemistry, materials science, and condensed matter physics and runs DOE’s big x-ray and neutron sources, would rise 2.8%, to $2.31 billion. High energy physics receives a 3.1% bump, to $1.08 billion.

Congress also showed support for DOE’s Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which seeks to translate the most promising ideas from basic research to budding technologies. Its budget will grow by 5.4%, to $450 million, although that falls well short of the $500 million the administration requested. DOE’s applied research in energy efficiency and renewable energy receives an 11.8% increase, to $3.2 billion. But even that healthy boost pales in comparison to the $4.7 billion the administration sought. It’s also more than $500 million less than House and Senate appropriations panels approved separately last year.

 

Source: Congress poised to boost U.S. science funding, launch new health agency | Science | AAAS

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