Federal Budget Process Shows Promising Signs for Research Funding
July 15, 2021
While attention in Congress remains focused on major infrastructure spending proposals, the annual appropriations process continues to move forward, with encouraging signs for federal research investment. On July 13, the House Appropriations Subcommittees considered spending bills that include the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The full Committee meets to consider the legislation on July 15, and reporting suggests that the whole House will vote on bills including IES and NIH before the end of July. The Senate is moving more slowly, and has not yet introduced spending legislation. These markups follow hearings held by Congressional appropriators with the heads of executive branch agencies, including NSF Director Panchanathan and NIH Director Collins. President Biden released his budget request at the end of May.
Both chambers will have to pass spending bills, and negotiate any differences, before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. In recent years they have been unable to come to agreement, instead passing stopgap continuing resolutions through the end of the calendar year to avoid shutting down the government. It is unclear if this year will be any different. Nonetheless, the House spending bills released this week include significant increases to federal research funding for our sciences and build on Congressional enthusiasm for growing investment in research.
Institute of Education Sciences
House Appropriators expressed very strong support for research at the Institute of Education Sciences. Their spending bill includes funding levels significantly above fiscal year (FY) 2021, and above the President’s request and even that of the advocacy community. Importantly, this includes a $50 million increase for program administration expenditures which cover staffing.
IES leadership has expressed that existing staff is unable to take on additional responsibilities. The agency depends heavily on contractors to carry out much of its work; however, at a recent event hosted by the National Academies, IES leadership claimed that they do not even have sufficient manpower to vet and hire needed contractors. Providing additional staff is a key tool in allowing the agency to maximize increased investments in research funding.
National Institutes of Health
The House Appropriations Subcommittee also included significant funding upticks at the National Institutes of Health. Every institute received an increase, and two key FABBS priorities were included.
After working with our members and the broader community to emphasize the importance of the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR), FABBS is grateful to the Subcommittee for including a $20 million increase to OBSSR in their legislation. Appropriators made clear in their report accompanying the legislation that “the Committee strongly supports the continued strengthening of the behavioral science enterprise at NIH and urges OBSSR funding be increased to accomplish this mission.”
In addition, language supported by FABBS was included to emphasize the sense of Congress that behavioral health, cognition, and development of young children should be priorities within the NICHD portfolio.
National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation has received significant attention in Congress, as both Chambers consider legislation focused on the Foundation, in part to advance international competitiveness by investing in research and development. The House Appropriations Committee allocated a large increase to the agency, an encouraging sign following a decade of flat funding.
Both chambers of Congress are considering legislation to create a new directorate at NSF focused on technology and translational research, and the appropriations bill indicates support for such a proposal within the agency’s research and related activities account. This is also a priority of the Biden Administration and the Foundation may move forward with or without specific direction from Congress. The shape that this new directorate eventually takes will ultimately determine how much of any funding increase would go to existing programs, including those that fund FABBS members’ sciences.
The funding process for federal agencies and programs follows, in theory, a two step process. First, Congress considers authorizing legislation, which can establish, continue, eliminate, or modify federal programs. While these bills provide funding guidance, they do not directly appropriate funds. It is common for federal agencies to continue to operate even when authorizations expire. Following authorization, Congress passes appropriations bills to fund government operations. Appropriations do not always match the authorized funding levels, and can be subject to much broader negotiations over federal spending.
Both Chambers have recently passed legislation to reauthorize the National Science Foundation: the NSF for the Future Act in the House and the United States Innovation and Competition Act in the Senate. These would mandate a new directorate, and provide additional direction for NSF over the next five years.