NewsMay 22, 2017

Long Budget Process Could Impact Climate Science

By Andrea Thompson

Follow @AndreaTWeather

President Trump’s long-awaited budget request for the 2018 fiscal year is expected to be released Tuesday and it is likely to include steep cuts to agencies and programs that deal with climate science.

The cuts, sketched out in the administration’s budget outline in March, are part of an effort to reduce non-defense spending in order to beef up the military and finance a wall along the border with Mexico.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Government Publishing Office Director Davita Vance-Cooks inspect the Fiscal Year 2018 budget production run in Washington on May 19, 2017.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


But Tuesday’s budget will just be one more point along a long and winding road. Congress, in particular the powerful appropriations committees in both houses, actually has the final say on federal spending.

Many senators and representatives, including from the president’s own party, have already balked at some of the proposed cuts, particularly to popular programs that share bipartisan support, like the Sea Grant program that aims to improve the resilience of coastal communities.

Committee hearings and negotiations will begin this week as Congress faces a compressed timeline to agree on full spending bills before the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Scientists, the professional organizations that support them, and science advocacy groups will be working hard to make their voices heard during the budget process in an effort to preserve science funding.

‘Draconian’ Cuts Proposed

The budget to be released on Tuesday will flesh out what were previously only vaguely outlined cuts across the federal government. The administration’s initial budget sketch didn’t even include a proposed budget for the National Science Foundation, one of the main funders of basic science research.

That outline did include, among other things, a stunning 30 percent reduction to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, the elimination of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, and the cancellation of several key NASA climate science missions. Other cuts, for example to NASA science more broadly, were not as dire as many had feared.

Still, Yogin Kothari, who has been working on federal budget matters for the Union of Concerned Scientists for many years said, “I’ve never seen really anything as draconian” as the Trump budget.

The budget has fueled worry among many scientists, both in the government and academia, that climate science funding could take a major hit and that research could be significantly set back, particularly given the hostile views that many members of the administration and Congress have expressed regarding climate science.

“We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money,” Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said of climate science funding during a March press briefing.

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Science funding accounts for only 1 percent of overall federal spending and has actually declined since 2010, according to the American Geophysical Union, which counts some 60,000 scientists as members.

What happens to science funding next year is ultimately up to Congress, though, particularly those who sit on the 12 appropriations subcommittees in each house.

“Ultimately the Constitution gives Congress the ability to make an independent judgment” on the federal budget, Kothari said.

And historically Congress has “been supportive of science and technology investments, and they’ll likely continue to be so,” Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in an email. “Presidents’ science budgets only matter as much as Congress allows them to, and this doesn’t seem like a Congress that’s chomping at the bit to target science and innovation with cuts, especially the historically large cuts proposed in the ‘skinny budget.’ ”

So while there may be cuts to various agencies, experts think they are unlikely to be anywhere near as severe as originally proposed in the president’s budget.

Budget Negotiations Begin

Congress will begin hearings on the 2018 budget this week, with Mulvaney scheduled to speak before both the House and Senate budget committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Other administration officials will also begin to speak to the various appropriations committees to make the case for the president’s priorities.

The budget committees of both houses draw up caps on spending, while appropriations committees set the actual funding amounts for various programs and agencies. The whole House and Senate votes on each bill and committees work to reconcile the bills from both houses.

The U.S. Capitol in early May. Congress will ultimately set funding levels for federal agencies.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


If Congress can’t complete the process before the end of September, lawmakers can pass continuing resolutions that would maintain funding at current levels until the fiscal year 2018 bill can be ironed out. That happened with the 2017 budget, which was only fully passed in early May. Hourihan thinks this will likely happen again this year, given that the process is starting later than usual and “it has been over 20 years since Congress got appropriations done on time and this is not the year they’ll break the streak.”

If neither a budget nor continuing resolutions materialize, the government can shut down, as it did in 2013, though Kothari thinks there is little appetite for that in this Congress.

Interest in Advocacy Up

Scientists, as well as professional groups like the AGU and advocacy groups, are likely to reach out to members of Congress to argue to keep or raise science funding.

Last week, the AGU sent a letter to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the appropriations committees arguing for increases in science funding at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NSF, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy.

“Sustained and robust funding is imperative to ensure that our nation’s federal science agencies can continue their important work of advancing American innovation, which stimulates jobs and the economy, safeguards America’s national security, and promotes public health and wellness in our communities,” the letter, signed by AGU CEO and executive director Christine McEntee, said.

Those connections between science and tangible benefits to Americans are likely to be one of the main messages science advocates use to argue for funding.

The AGU has urged members to visit their elected officials when they are in their home districts during recesses and to contact staff members who deal with relevant policy issues.

EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Credit: EPA/flickr


Both McEntee and Kothari said they have been hearing concerns from members since the election and Kothari has noted a sharp rise in interest in engagement with elected officials.

“I think the election really lit a fire under the scientific community at large,” Kothari said. “It’s been a huge shift. It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before.”

Funding is of such concern because cuts in one year can have long tails as budgets are often set using the previous year as a guide. Sustained cuts can hamper the ability of climate scientists to develop better computer models, launch satellites that will make more detailed observations, and train the next generation of scientists. Those setbacks can take years to recover from and hamper the ability of climate scientists to improve our understanding of how and how quickly Earth’s climate is changing.

A continuing resolution can also stymie research, leaving both agency and academic scientists operating under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing, for example, whether certain research funding will be available in the following years, whether missions might be cut, or whether the graduate program they want to pursue will be able to support them.

Once the full budget is released, outfits like the UCS and AGU will be diving into the details and deciding where to focus their efforts, hoping that they can thwart major cuts to the science enterprise. But the process is likely to be a long and arduous one, with climate science funding only one small piece of a much larger budget puzzle.

“There’s a lot out there and we really want to make sure that we don’t see severe cuts,” Kothari said.

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