WASHINGTON -- With ominous noises emanating from deficit reduction talks down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Congressional Republicans promoting budget cutting as the way out, most federal agencies are bracing for reductions in their 2012 fiscal year budgets (see related item  on the National Endowment for the Humanities). But several science agencies that support academic researchers got some (early) positive news as Congress's appropriations process cranked up Thursday, as a House subcommittee proposed increases for the research budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Standards and Technology.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies approved a bill that would increase spending on NSF research by $43 million and NIST research by $10 million. But other parts of both agencies' budgets would be cut -- the proposal would reduce NIST's overall allocation by $50 million, while NSF's overall budget would remain the same. A $17 million reduction in NSF's Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account would help offset the increase in research spending.
The legislation was approved unanimously by the subcommittee Thursday morning, with little argument from either side of the aisle, and will now be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee.
Subcommittee Republicans spoke Thursday about the need to make significant spending reductions, but they also said Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said the committee recognized the need to protect spending on research in order to promote “long-term job economic growth and job creation, and contribute to the security and economic well-being of future generations.”
Some Democrats on the subcommittee, including Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, expressed concern about the proposal to cut NSF’s equipment budget. Dicks said the cut would force the government to terminate about $100 million in contracts for work on facilities being used for ecological and oceanographic research, which would, in the long run, make the work more expensive.
“We would be saving money now, but paying far more over the next few years,” Dicks said. NSF’s equipment and facilities account funds, among numerous other projects, the Ocean Observatories Initiative and the National Ecological Observatories Network.
Amy Scott, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, said it’s too early to tell how the cuts in NSF’s equipment fund would affect those projects. Still, Scott said the subcommittee's proposed increases in research funding are a promising sign moving forward.
“I think over all, given the budget situation, it was the best the chairman could do,” she said. “But we have a long way to go.”