A quick look at federal science funding in the United States

*Disclaimer: Views expressed in this post belong to the author and are not part of an official position of the ADN

The Florida delegation meeting with Florida Representative Kathy Castor to discuss NSF funding

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom when I arrived in Washington DC earlier this month to participate in a Congressional Visit Day hosted by the American Institute for Biological Sciences (AIBS). The purpose of this trip was to learn more about how federal science funding is allocated by the US Congress, and then to spend a day meeting with Florida representatives on Capitol Hill to oppose cuts to science funding across agencies, and, specifically, to advocate for an increase to next year’s National Science Foundation budget. Since the ADN is supported by an NSF Research Coordination Network grant and many of our members rely on NSF support in their individual research programs, I feel it is increasingly important to our success as scientists to be vocal advocates for good science policy. To this end, I wanted to share some of what I learned about the federal budgeting process and the budgets for 2018 and 2019.

Each year, the federal government is required to produce a budget to direct federal spending for the fiscal year (FY) via an extremely complicated, months-long process. The President initiates this process by submitting a proposed budget to Congress in early February. After consultations and proposals from federal agencies, the budget request is an opportunity for the administration to highlight its spending priorities in detail. Congress is not required to follow the President’s plan, but the plan may be influential, depending on the political climate and the support for the administration in Congress. After receiving the President’s budget request, the House and Senate Budget Committees develop their own Budget Resolution, which is then voted on by each House. The Budget Resolution, which may cover multiple years, is typically not very detailed and is not a law; instead, it serves to create a threshold level for spending to guide further budgeting decisions. After agreeing on the spending framework in the Budget Resolution, the provisioning of money is left to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, which are each subdivided into 12 subcommittees with jurisdictions over different sectors (e.g. energy, defense, etc.). These subcommittees each create an Appropriations Bill to dictate how much money to give to the programs under their jurisdictions. Each of these 12 bills must be reconciled between the House and Senate versions, passed by both Houses, and finally signed into law by the President. This process is supposed be complete before the start of the fiscal year in October, but has taken far longer in the past years, occasionally forcing Congress to pass temporary spending bills in the interim. If Congress is unable to pass all 12 bills, they may resort to one bill, called an Omnibus bill, which covers all 12 jurisdictions.

A breakdown of the federal budgeting process

Federal spending is broken up into two major categories: mandatory and discretionary spending. Laws outside this process govern mandatory spending, which accounts for about 60% of federal spending and covers major programs like Medicare and Social Security. The remaining ~40% is discretionary spending, which is governed by the appropriations process. This includes defense spending, as well as research, National Parks, and federal environmental agencies. In February, Congress approved an agreement to raise discretionary spending by $300 billion over the next two years. This led to an extra $63 billion in non-defense spending in 2018, and the option of another $68 billion for 2019, should Congress chose to spend it. One month later, Congress, unable to complete the appropriations process, passed the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY2018 (this was passed 6 moths into FY2018). Unexpectedly, this included a 4% increase to NSF funding, contrary to the President’s requests for a cut, setting the NSF budget at $7.8 billion.

Around the time the Omnibus Act was passed for FY2018, the President sent his FY2019 budget request to Congress. This budget again pushes for major cuts to science funding and environmental agencies. The Trump administration recommends an 11.3% decrease in Research and Development funding across the board compared to FY 2018. For NSF, this means a 0.4% cut below the 2017 level, or an overall funding rate of $7.47 billion. Funding specifically for the NSF BIO directorate would decrease by 0.5% compared to 2017. The BIO directorate currently funds 69% of federal grant support for non-medical basic research and already has a rejection rate of 77%. Additionally, President Trump’s proposal calls for a 15% cut to the Graduate Research Fellowship program and a 10.9% cut to Support for Faculty early career development programs compared to 2017.

Members of our network at federal agencies may also be impacted by the proposed budget, especially the group at the US Geological Survey, which may face a 20.7% decrease in funding, should Congress follow President Trump’s recommendations. The President has also called for cuts to other environmental agencies compared to 2017 levels, including the USDA Forest Service (-15.3%), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (-19.6%), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (-34%), the Environmental Protection Agency (-24%), the Bureau of Land Management (-17.6%), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (-19%).

Cherry blossoms in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC.

On the bright side, the President’s budget request is not the final word. For now, we are waiting to hear Congress’s response. Given that the FY2018 bill rejected major cuts to science funding, it is not clear whether Congress will support cuts this year. Also, since the Omnibus Bill was not passed until March of 2018, it is possible that next year’s budget will be considered after the midterm Congressional elections, which may result in changes to the political composition of one or both Houses. Either way, Congress is currently deliberating over discretionary funding for FY 2019, and now is the time to contact your representatives, should you disagree with this proposal. Many science groups are advocating for $8.45 billion for NSF, and this is what I asked for when I went to Capitol Hill. This process occurs every year, so I’ll be back again next year when the cherry trees bloom, and I hope to see some fellow ADN members in the crowd.


Heniff, B., Lynch, M. S., & Tollestrup, J. (2012). Introduction to the Federal Budget Process. Washington DC. Retrieved from https://democrats-budget.house.gov/sites/democrats.budget.house.gov/files/documents/Introduction to the Federal Budget Process.pdf

Pandey, J., Manager, P. P., & Gropp, R. (2018). Analysis of the President ’ s Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request for Biological Sciences Research and Education. Washington DC. Retrieved from https://www.aibs.org/public-policy/resources/AIBS_Budget_Report_FY_2019.pdf

Capitol Building photo credit: Babu595 WikiCommons