Replenishing Research

President Obama's 2016 budget proposal includes nearly across-the-board increases for research, with heavy focus on biomedical sciences, climate change, advanced manufacturing and STEM education.

February 3, 2015
 

WASHINGTON -- Science and research advocates welcomed President Obama's 2016 budget proposal Monday, which would give the National Science Foundation a "vigorous, healthy budget," according to its director.

Overall, the president’s budget would increase federal spending on research and development by 5.5 percent across a series of agencies.

In announcing the proposed budget, staff of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy highlighted how money for research would support biomedical science, advanced manufacturing and data collection for climate change.

The proposal -- and the president’s decision to ignore sequestration budget caps for discretionary spending -- drew largely positive reaction from higher education and research associations.

The fiscal year 2016 budget proposal includes a 5 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, up to $7.72 billion from an estimated $7.34 billion for the current fiscal year. Within that budget is a 4 percent increase in research funding and an 11 percent increase in the significantly smaller portion of NSF money that goes toward education.

The president’s budget would increase money for the National Institutes of Health as well. The NIH would receive $31.3 billion in total research and development, an increase of nearly $1 billion from fiscal year 2015 levels. About 90 percent of that increase would go toward individual research projects in the form of competitive grants, according to Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House science office.

More than $650 million of the NIH budget would go toward research to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and roughly $200 million of the budget would support a precision medicine initiative to improve disease treatment. Both are issues the administration is highlighting, along with $2.7 billion to support climate science and $2.4 billion for advanced manufacturing.

The Department of Agriculture would also see a boost in grant money under the proposal. Basic research funding there would increase 11 percent, including $550 million for competitive grants. About $450 million in grant money would be awarded through the Agriculture and Food Research Institute, and there would also be new money available for grants for land-grant universities, Handelsman said.

NSF Defends Its Projects, Peer Review

The National Science Foundation’s budget represents a quarter of the total federal budget for basic research. But in recent years, the foundation has come under scrutiny from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The committee's chairman, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas, has questioned how the agency awards money and criticized some grant projects, especially those in the social sciences.   

While comments Monday never explicitly broached the ongoing tension between some conservative lawmakers and the science foundation, NSF Director France Córdova defended the foundation's peer review process and selection of projects. Córdova called the NSF’s review process the "gold standard" and one that had been emulated around the world.

“The large number of Nobel prizes and other significant prizes that have gone to NSF grantees demonstrates that our processes have been able to identify the best ideas and the most innovative thinkers,” she said.

In her budget briefing, Córdova focused on $144 million that would go toward projects to better understand the brain, $75 million that would help the study of food, energy and water systems, and $58 million that would help improve resiliency to extreme weather events such as hurricanes. She also spoke about a $15 million effort to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

Of the foundation’s seven research areas, the largest amount of money is used for geosciences and for math and physical sciences. Both categories would receive roughly $1.37 billion. The fund for social, behavioral and economic sciences is the smallest, but its $291 million proposal would be an increase of 7 percent -- the largest percentage growth of any category.

The NSF budget also would devote $135 million to undergraduate teaching in STEM and $400 million to support graduate research fellowships in STEM areas.

In 2014, the NSF awarded 11,000 grants. The foundation estimates that number would increase to 12,000 during fiscal year 2016. The funding rate, though, would remain steady at 23 percent, since the number of research proposals is also expected to increase.

Praise for the Plan

Initial reaction to the research and development budgets was mainly supportive. United for Medical Research, a coalition of universities and research groups, said it welcomed the proposal. Sequestration and inadequate funding over the past decade has hurt the NIH’s ability to make advances in the life sciences, the group said.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called the proposal a “much-needed shot in the arm” to spur innovation.

“By ending sequestration, the president’s budget would enable growth in basic research and higher education programs, which together serve as the foundation for the long-term success of the nation,” the association said in a statement.  

But both the APLU and the Association of American Universities criticized one part of the research proposal -- an 8 percent cut to basic research at the Department of Defense. The AAU, which represents 60 leading research universities, called the cut "inconceivable."

A White House official noted that the $2.1 billion request for defense basic research in fiscal year 2016 is an increase over the $2 billion that was requested last year; that level, too, would have represented a significant budget cut, which the higher ed groups also fought. Congress, however, chose to provide more than the request for fiscal year 2015, at $2.3 billion. 

In other higher education-related agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities would receive $147.9 million, a $1.9 million increase over current funding. 

Research Funds in President's 2016 Budget

  2015 Enacted (in millions) 2016 Proposed (in millions) % Change, 2014 to 2015
Department of Defense Basic Research $2,292 $2,101 -8.3%
National Institutes of Health 30,273 30,830 1.8%
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 5,600 5,678 1.4%
Department of Energy 8,483 8,928 5.2%
National Science Foundation 7,344 7,723 5.2%
--Research 5,933 6,186 4.3%
--Education 866 963 11.2%
Department of Commerce 1,129 1,325 17.4%
Department of Agriculture 2,109 2,365 12.1%

 

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