Obama Budget Bets on “Mandatory” Scheme to Fund More Science

Advocates Are Skeptical Proposed Increases Can Be Enacted

On the plus side, President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal underscores his faith in and support of scientific research as a valuable U.S. investment. On the downside, the 4% increase for research and development he proposes would be largely supported with “mandatory” funding, meaning those expenditures would not be subject to the budget caps, but would be funded by separately-identified revenues. What does this mean for science funding? Will Congress agree?

President Obama is looking for a way to provide major science increases without breaking the budget caps and without resorting to other large cuts to fund the increase in research funding – so we can credit his good intentions. His budget dilemma really underscores how pernicious the budget caps are, even after the two year deal we reported late last year that provides some relief from sequestration. That deal increased discretionary spending by 5.2% in Fiscal Year 2016, but allows no growth in 2017. That explains why healthy increases were possible for 2016, but, not in 2017, absent the sort of comity that Washington often lacks during presidential election years.

Identifying and supporting revenues for additional government spending is something recent Congresses have only very rarely been willing to do.  So these increases are unlikely to be enacted in the form proposed by the White House – with one possible exception. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any science agency increases when Congress writes the final spending legislation: just that they are likely to be smaller and offset by other spending cuts

Highlights of Administration’s FY 2017 budget:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get $7.9 billion, a 6.7 percent increase over 2016. $400 million of that increase would come as mandatory spending. Without it, the spending at that agency would increase just 1.3 percent, or $101 million, over last year. The funding request would provide enough for 10,100 new research grants, about 900 more than the 2016 budget supports. That would increase funding rates from 22% of proposals to 23%.
  • The budget provides $33.1 billion to support biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), providing about 10,000 new and competing NIH grants. The proposed increase of $1.8 billion would consist entirely of mandatory funding.  $825 million would be designated for the Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN initiative, and a large increase to the National Cancer Institute budget for what’s been called the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The remaining $1 billion of mandatory funding would support NIH’s base programs. That is the most problematic part of the NIH proposal because that $1 billion was cut from discretionary funding and made mandatory. Without the mandatory funding, NIH’s 2017 budget would be $1 billion less than 2016.
  •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $6.98 billion, down $194 million (2.7%) from last year. This proposed increase includes $10 million to promote CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline.  In addition, the budget provides $30 million in mandatory funding for suicide prevention activities as part of a larger HHS-wide Mental Health Initiative. 
  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which suffered cuts in last year’s appropriation, would receive $469.7 million, up $41.2 million from last year. $106 million would come in the form of mandatory funding. 
  • The Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, would receive $694 million, a $76 million increase over last year.

We mentioned above that the proposed mandatory spending for research was unlikely to be enacted, with one possible exception. The Cancer Moonshot initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden has some bipartisan support, and legislation is already underway—the 21st Century Cures legislation passed by the House and under consideration in the Senate – that includes a mandatory funding mechanism for additional NIH support. There is no agreement on the needed revenue sources, and the Senate legislation will be different from the House version, necessitating some cross-Capitol agreement about how to proceed.  But in that one case, if all the stars align, there is a chance it will succeed this year. Watch this blog for more news about the Moonshot and psychology’s interest in it.