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U.S. debt deal clouds hopes of big increases for science agencies

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An agreement struck over the weekend between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–CA) to avoid a U.S. government default has reassured jittery financial markets. But its formula for holding federal spending flat for 2 years means science agencies will have to compete against all other civilian programs to win any increases from Congress.

Such a zero-sum game would mark a return to the rules under which Congress operated for a decade ending in 2021, which limited but did not halt growth in research spending. Some research advocates predict it will be hard to win any sizable increases for science given everything else the government must fund.

“I think we’re looking at a status-quo budget for FY [fiscal year] 2024,” says Matthew Hourihan of the Federation of American Scientists. “And when you factor in inflation, that means a real cut for most programs.”

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The 27 May agreement would allow the U.S. government to continue to borrow money for its operations after 5 June, when it is expected to reach the current debt ceiling of $31.4 trillion. The deal strikes a compromise between Republican demands for deep, sustained cuts in federal spending in return for raising the ceiling and Biden’s effort to protect federal programs. It would essentially hold the pot of money that funds all nondefense discretionary spending at its current level of $638 billion in FY 2024, which begins 1 October, rather than the 7% increase Biden has requested. Defense spending would grow by 3%, as Biden has requested.

The 2024 number for civilian programs, although flat, allows for some new spending by including tens of billions of dollars appropriated this year but not yet spent. Those rescissions include money to beef up tax collections and pay for COVID-19 pandemic relief. But Biden was able to protect $5 billion allocated for Project Next Gen, which will develop improved coronavirus vaccines and drugs.

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The negotiators are presenting the agreement as a victory, but hard-liners in both parties are dismayed by their side’s concessions. If approved this week by the House of Representatives and the Senate, the 99-page bill would delay imposing any new ceiling until January 2025, taking default off the political agenda until after the presidential election in November 2024.

For scientists, the real drama will occur this year, as Congress decides how much the government will spend in FY 2024. Those negotiations will pit Biden’s request for healthy increases at several federal research agencies against a push by Republicans, who control the House but not the Senate, to reverse 2 years of sizable growth in federal research budgets after the previous budget cap was lifted.

“It’s in the hands of the appropriators now,” adds Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, referring to the members sitting on the committee that writes spending bills for every federal agency. “Flat funding makes it more challenging, but it’s too soon to say how much more.”

Recent increases for research were part of trillions of dollars in new government spending in legislation passed by Congress since Biden took office in January 2021. It includes landmark measures to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry, and combat climate change.

This week’s agreement would halt that rising tide. To boost research spending even modestly in FY 2024, Congress would have to reallocate some of what’s been targeted for thousands of other discretionary, civilian programs across the government. Civilian and military spending would continue to be constrained in FY 2025, rising by only 1% over 2024 levels. (Republicans had initially sought to impose a decade’s worth of tight caps before settling for 2 years.) The agreement also contains a clause requiring a 1% cut in overall discretionary spending if Congress adopts a spending freeze, called a continuing resolution, after missing its 1 October deadline to pass the next FY’s budget. That penalty would be removed, however, if Congress later passes a more detailed spending plan in either year.

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Science agencies with the most ambitious plans have the most to lose from the proposed 2-year spending restrictions. For example, Biden’s 2024 budget request to Congress, submitted in March, includes a 19% increase, to $11.3 billion, for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A high priority is NSF’s new technology directorate, designed to translate basic research findings into new technologies and businesses. Congress itself had aimed even higher, adopting a 5-year spending blueprint for NSF in the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act to strengthen the U.S. semiconductor industry and related fields that would have allowed NSF’s budget to reach $15.6 billion in 2024.

“A flat 2024 budget leaves a 2-year, $7 billion gap with CHIPS,” Hourihan notes. “Those levels were always aspirational, but under the new agreement we’re barely trying.”

Biomedical researchers are also worried about the impact of a flat budget. They were hoping to do much better than the 2% increase ($920 million) Biden requested in 2024 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), half of which would go to the National Cancer Institute.

“That was a terrible number, and we’ve been making the case this spring for a bigger increase,” Zeitzer says. Biden is also seeking $1 billion more for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which this year received $1.5 billion.

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The Department of Energy’s science programs are slated for big increases under the CHIPS act, with Biden’s 2024 request for an 8% increase as a down payment. But energy lobbyists say winning that $680 million boost, which included a large hike for industry partnerships to accelerate progress in fusion energy, will now be a stretch.

Several of NASA’s science missions also need a big increase to stay on course. So a tight budget could trigger a political fight pitting the Biden administration’s priorities on climate missions against congressional support for planetary exploration. A flat NASA science budget could result in delays to one or more missions.

McCarthy has promised a vote Wednesday on the agreement. If it passes the House, the Senate could take up the measure as soon as the next day, in time to avert a default.

If Congress approves the deal, science advocates say the time to press their case will come after Congress divvies up the total amount available for discretionary spending among the 12 appropriations subcommittees, a step that could happen before the 4 July recess. (More than half of all federal spending goes to mandatory payouts such as Social Security and interest on federal borrowing, accounts that fall outside the annual allocation.)

Once we see those numbers, we’ll have a much clearer picture of what FY 2024 will look like,” Zeitzer says. “So I think it’s still possible for NIH to do much better.”

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