11 September 2015

An Update on the FY 2016 Budget Cycle

Heather Bloemhard Vanderbilt University

Back in February, President Obama released his budget request for FY 2016; you can read more about it in the earlier article “The President's FY 2016 Budget Just Dropped.” In the months since then, the House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Committee on Appropriations have been working to draw up their own appropriations bills. There are a grand total of 12 appropriations bills that must be passed and signed by 30 September 2015.

The House has passed 6 of its bills; the bills that are most relevant to the astronomical sciences are the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (HR 2578) and the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (HR 2028). The Senate has not yet voted on any of its own bills, but the two relevant Senate subcommittees have approved their versions (see the links at the end of this post).

A summary of the relevant approved funding levels from each appropriations bill is included in the table, which compares FY 2015 enacted levels with the president’s budget request for FY 2016, the House appropriations bills for FY 2016, and the Senate Appropriations Committee drafts for FY 2016. All amounts are in millions of US dollars. Note that neither the House nor the Senate committee provide specific funding levels for the divisions of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The specifics of the funding levels listed in each committee report are discussed below the table. Links to the full reports are included at the end.


FY 2015
FY 2016
FY 2016
FY 2016
NASA $18,010.2 $18,529.1 $18,289.5 $18,529.1
Science Mission Directorate $5,244.7 $5,288.6 $5,295.0 $5,237.5
Earth Science $1,772.5 $1,947.3 $1,931.6 $1,682.9
Planetary Science $1,437.8 $1,361.3 $1,321.0 $1,557.0
Astrophysics $726.8 $709.1 $730.6 $735.6
Education & Public Outreach $42.0 $20.0 $42.0 $32.0
JWST $645.4 $620.0 $620.0 $620.0
Heliophysics $662.0 $651.0 $649.8 $642.0
NSF $7,344.2 $7,723.6 $7,343.8 $7,394.2
Research & Related Activities $5,933.6 $6,186.3 $5,933.6 $5,983.6
Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction $200.8 $200.3 $200.3 $200.0
Education & Human Resources $866.0 $962.6 $866.0 $866.0
DOE $27,042.4 $29,923.8 $29,429.1 $29,984.6
Office of Science $5,067.4 $5,339.8 $5,143.9 $5,100.0
High Energy Physics $766.0 $788.0 $788.1 $776.0
Cosmic Frontier $106.8 $119.3 $119.3

Specifics of the Funding Levels

NASA and the Science Mission Directorate

Both the House floor and Senate committee bills funded NASA at levels higher than FY 2015, though the funds were distributed very differently — the House made large cuts to Earth science and exploration while increasing planetary science, and the Senate committee cut aeronautics, space technology, and the commercial crew program; the science directorates remained near the president’s requested levels. 

NASA Planetary Science

Both the House and the Senate committee supported Mars exploration, providing $250 million and $228 million, respectively, for the Mars 2020 rover. Near-Earth object observations were funded at $50 million by both chambers. The outer planets, and especially Jupiter/Europa, were featured in the House bill with $226 million for outer planets research, which included no less than $140 million for the Jupiter/Europa Clipper. The Senate committee similarly viewed the outer planets and Jupiter/Europa as a priority but did not specify a dollar amount for the projects. The House directed NASA to create an Ocean World Exploration Program using a mix of Discovery, New Frontiers, and flagship-class missions. The House also included $175 for Discovery, which included $16 million for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter program. The Senate committee provided $189.7 million for Origins and $7 million for New Frontiers.

NASA Astrophysics

Both the House and the Senate committee set funding levels that were largely in agreement with the decadal survey. The House specified $35.8 million for developing the Exoplanet Exploration Program, which included the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and $85.2 million for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The House also instructed NASA to “not commence a [senior] review of SOFIA until it meets the requirements” for a senior review. The Senate included $98.3 million for Hubble, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $90 million for WFIRST.

NASA Heliophysics

The House did not discuss specifics regarding heliophysics, but the Senate committee specified $230.4 million for Solar Probe Plus and a 2018 launch.

NSF Research & Related Activities

The Senate committee encouraged NSF to sustain support for the programs and facilities funded by the Astronomical Sciences (AST) division, including NRAO. The Senate committee directed NSF to create a transition plan for the continued use of existing solar observatories and stated an expectation that NSF will request sufficient funds to maintain operations of existing and in-progress facilities. The House instructed NSF to “not implement any final divestment of infrastructure...without first reporting such actions to the Committee.”

NSF Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction

Both the Senate committee and the House set construction funding at the requested level; they specifically list the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) as priorities. 

NSF Education & Human Resources

The Senate Committee and House paid special attention to the need to increase diversity in STEM. They instructed the Education & Human Resources to create programs across all levels of education in STEM, provided funding for programs at Hispanic Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and related scholarship programs.

DOE Office of Science

The Senate committee and House both included less funding for the Office of Science than the president’s budget request, though the funding levels are still higher than FY 2015. They both supported the priorities outlined by the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel Report. The Senate committee included $19 million for the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility, $10.5 million for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, $10.5 million for the G2 dark matter experiments, Large Underground Xenon (LUX) and ZonEd Proportional scintillation in LIquid Noble gases (ZEPLIN), and ongoing support for work at the Homestake Mine in South Dakota.

And that’s where things were when Congress left for recess in August. As of 8 September, Congress has been back in session. The House and the Senate have 10 working days to come to an agreement and pass a budget that the president will sign. At the same time, there is to be a congressional action on the Iran deal, state visits by the Pope and Chinese president, a possible move to hold up the budget process unless it defunds Planned Parenthood, and more. The president and Republican leaders in Congress have separately said that a government shutdown is an unacceptable option. That means that Congress will likely pass a continuing resolution (CR) lasting one to three months to give themselves more time to arrive at an agreement. This CR may include another year of relaxing the limits set by the Budget Control Act — similar to what was done for FY 2014 and FY 2015 in the Ryan-Murray agreement.

We won’t know the impact of a CR on NASA, NSF, or the DOE until the CR funding levels and duration are announced, which we can expect to be at the last minute. We’ll keep you posted.


In the case of the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill and the Energy appropriations bill, the Senate subcommittee amended the House version, rather than publishing their own bills. For that reason, the documents at the following links have the House text crossed out with the Senate amendments at the end:

Links to the full reports: