AAS ACTION ALERT #2000-1
[Mailed from aas.org at 11:25am 06 JAN 2000]
Summary: This Action Alert is a summary of how Astronomy fared in the Federal budget for fiscal year 2000. After a description of what happened inside the Beltway in 1999, we propose actions AAS members can take to help the funding situation for Astronomy for FY '01. Members are asked to begin action early, as last ditch communications are not always effective in Congress.
What Happened in 1999
The funding process in 1999 was marred early in the year by bad blood between the two political parties. The Presidential impeachment did not produce an environment of goodwill and teamwork and this was clearly reflected throughout the 1999 appropriations cycle. Overshadowing the whole process was the 1997 balanced budget act, which placed strict spending limits (caps) on Federal discretionary (non-mandatory expenditures such as Medicare payments) spending. The 1997 law slowly reduces the discretionary spending amounts each year through FY 2002, ending in a balanced budget.
Although the caps were enacted at a time when the Nation's economy was beginning to grow significantly, little attention was paid to the actual numbers involved. This led to unrealistic spending limitations as well as preventing tampering with the numbers until the FY 2002 timeframe. The Government is now producing surplus revenue, although almost all of it goes into the Social Security accounts. The so called "on budget" elements (the rest of the federal budget) fell only $1 billion short of a true surplus. The Social Security surplus, excess money taken each paycheck from US taxpayers, amounted to $123 billion and cannot be used for discretionary spending in a direct way.
Through an intricate negotiation process in which a number of "creative" accounting measures were employed, Congressional leaders and White House negotiators finally finished work on the Federal FY '00 budget in early November and the Senate signed the budget into law on 18 November 1999. The final discretionary budget authority for FY 2000 is $590 billion, compared to $556 billion in FY 1999 and stands in stark contrast with the Congressionally mandated cap of $538 billion. It is clear that even though the caps will not be rescinded, in practice they have very likely eroded away to dust.
Finally, the closing negotiations between the President and congressional leaders resulted in a 0.38% cut across all federal agencies, but left the hard decision of where to make cuts up to the agencies. How NASA and NSF will apply this cut is yet to be seen.
Federally Funded Astronomy for FY '00
Despite a roller coaster ride during the summer of 1999, Astronomy fared well overall. NASA and NSF are responsible for almost all Federally funded Astronomy research and I discuss each briefly below.
NSF funds Astrophysical research through the Mathematics and Physical Science Directorate. Within this directorate the Astronomical Sciences division (AST) is directly responsible for providing funds to individual researchers, the three National Astronomy Centers (NOAO, NRAO and NAIC), the University based Radio Observatories, the US share of the GEMINI project and the Center for Particle Astrophysics.
Although early documents do not detail the budgets of the individual directorates, MP received a 3% increase compared to its FY 1999 budget of $734 million, ending up with a budget total of $754 million dollars. How this funding increase will affect AST is unknown as of December 1999. The proposed AST budget for FY '00 showed an overall increase of 2.9% (FY2000 budget) and the community can probably expect an actual increase close to this level.
The Major Research Equipment line item of the NSF budget provides construction money for large scientific equipment installations. This line shows an increase of 5.2% compared to FY '99 resulting in a total budget of $95 million dollars. Of the total, $95 million finally enacted, about $8 million will go to the design and development phase of the Millimeter Array (now called ALMA, or Atacama Large Millimeter Array). Further, about $17.4 million will go towards South Pole improvements, which benefit astronomy research from this harsh, but unique environment.
Finally, it should be noted that astronomers are not limited to requesting funds from AST. Other directorates, such as Computing and Information Sciences, Education or the expanded Crosscutting Programs effort are all viable sources of funds for creative astronomers. Opportunities are always detailed on the NSF web site.
NASA is continuing to experience difficult times. Overall, the total NASA budget request for FY '99 was $13.578 billion dollars and Congress gave NASA $13.601 billion. Hidden within this almost flat (0.2% increase) budget are innumerable congressionally mandated expenditures (aka earmarks), which circumvent the Agency's extensive planning process. Additionally, flat budgets are really declining budgets since inflation eats away at the purchasing power of every dollar.
The Office of Space Science funds most astronomy and space science research within NASA and has an overall decrease in FY '00 from its requested budget of 0.9%. Congress made $2.177 billion available to OSS, while including large amounts of earmarked funds. Nearly $80 million of this budget includes unwanted congressional earmarks. These appropriations, although certainly a Congressional right, have severe repercussions. Increasing or decreasing a budget (say a tech-development project) can have implications for other projects in both the near and far term. They are a real headache. A number of the earmarks are arguably not even appropriate for inclusion in the OSS budget.
Although the exact distribution of funding decreases caused by the flat budget and the earmarked funds is not clear yet, many supporting research and technology grant recipients have been told by email that they will have about a 6 percent decrease in the size of their grants for FY '00.
The loss of WIRE, Mars Climate Observer, Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 penetrators has not helped the image of NASA in the Congressional eye. It will be of the utmost importance for the FY '01 funding process for the community to rally behind NASA and contact members of Congress in support of NASA (see call to action below).
Call to Action
The President's budget will be released to the public on 7 February 2000. The AAS will distribute a special mailing detailing the budget and ways that AAS members can support the overall science budget and advocate for increased funding for astronomy in general in mid-February.
Early reports from insiders are exciting. The President may be making Science and Technology a priority item on his FY '01 budget submission to Congress. The word on the street is that the NSF request will be truly impressive. Director Rita Colwell has clearly made an impact in the planning process and NSF may benefit with a substantially increased budget for FY '01. NASA fares well in the President's budget, but early information does not detail how OSS will perform compared to other S&T line items.
Members can do several things before February 7th to help astronomy for FY '01.
First, contact your representatives in their home districts during Congressional recess. They LIKE TO HAVE VISITORS; it is in their job profile to talk to citizens! Please go visit them. You pay their salary; the least you should do is get 20 minutes of their time. Convey an upbeat message of the benefits of science and describe your personal research and how it influences your fellow citizens. Feel free to discuss your concerns for the coming year, especially the decreasing funding available through NASA and the lack of funding increases at NSF. Astronomy is a powerful recruitment tool for the physical sciences; emphasize its utility in this regard.
Second, take some time during January to draft some letters to your legislators and to the President, Vice-President, White House Chief of Staff or other members of the Executive branch. Explain what you do, that you advocate increased funding for astronomy and that you think this is an area where America will only continue to shine if funds are made available. Any communication is worthwhile; you do not have to limit yourself to these suggestions.
Finally, take some time to educate yourself on the current situation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science maintains detailed web information (AAAS web site) on the federal budget.
Look at these pages and read some of the excellent discussion of the bigger picture of science funding in our country. A little bit of education can go a long way in Washington.
Take advantage of your scientific learning skills to digest the federal budget situation. . . the logic of the budget process is nearly impossible to understand but, attempting to master its rudiments can be a very worthwhile endeavor.
For further information on Astronomy Pubic Policy see the AAS Public Policy web site or contact Kevin Marvel, AAS Associate Executive Officer for Policy Programs.
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