26 March 2018

A Fiscal Year Finalized: Astronomical Sciences in FY 2018 Omnibus

Ashlee Wilkins

The fiscal year (FY) 2018 began on 1 October 2017 with a continuing resolution (CR). Four more CRs (and two shutdowns) later, Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, and the president signed the bill into law on 23 March, 2018. Congressional appropriators will now turn their attention to determining FY 2019 spending levels in response to the administration's proposal released in February (watch the blog for an overview this week).

The final FY 2018 spending agreement (or "Omnibus") raises discretionary spending across the federal government, and gives federally-funded research the largest funding increase it has seen since the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus package. The astronomical sciences are no exception; most budget lines across the AAS disciplines receive a lift in the FY 2018 omnibus, some well above not only the FY 2018 President's Budget Request, but also both the House and Senate versions of the budget, as we show in the plot below. Such increases were enabled by the raising of the defense and nondefense discretionary budget caps in the two-year bipartisan budget deal Congress passed in February.

We present the omnibus spending levels for relevant directorates and divisions of NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) in the table below. Not every program is listed in our table or the further details below because Congress does not determine the funding level for every program within an agency. Each agency will determine the funding level for programs not mentioned in the bill or in the report language, typically consistent with the original administration's budget proposal, unless directly contradicted by the statutory or report language of the appropriations legislation. Details for NASA and NSF are in the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Division Report of the omnibus bill, while details for DOE SC are in the Energy and Water Division Report. We infer some implications of the omnibus report language in what follows, but we caution that the final word on such implications will come from the division directors and agency leaders themselves, who will be submitting operating plans to Congress in the coming months.



The administration proposed to eliminate the NASA Office of Education, only requesting funding to complete commitments within FY 2018. Congress roundly rejected that proposal, protecting programs like the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), Space Grant, and the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). Within the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the STEM Activation line (bookkept within the Astrophysics division) remains at $44 million.

Science Mission Directorate

In commentary on SMD as a whole, the omnibus report language emphasizes the importance of adhering to decadal priorities, stating:

The agreement reiterates the importance of the decadal survey process and rejects the cancellation of scientific priorities recommended by the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey process.

Planetary Science

The bill includes $595 million in FY 2018 for both the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and an additional follow-on Europa lander, and further directs NASA to launch both missions on a NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket by 2022 (orbiter) and 2024 (lander). The Mars program is funded at $660 million, with direction to support the decadal-prioritized Mars sample return (Mars2020 will cache Martian samples for future retrieval and return to Earth, with the mission architecture still under development at NASA) and an additional Mars orbiter. The bill Near Earth Object observations are appropriated $66 million. The bill provides $335.8 million for the Discovery program and $90 million for the New Frontiers program. Planetary Research & Analysis (under the Planetary Research line) defaults to the requested $197.9 million, appropriated in the House report language. Planetary Technology defaults to the requested $214.9 million, also as appropriated in the House report language, but the omnibus bill does reserve $23 million of that for the Mars helicopter technology demonstration activity, creating an unresolved shortfall of $23 million within that line.


The bill includes $150 million for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and further states that

[WFIRST] is the highest priority of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. In October 2017, NASA received the findings from the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review (WIETR), which found in part that the current science management strategy is appropriate and that the Class B risk classification for the WFIRST mission is not consistent with NASA policy for strategically important missions with comparable levels of investment and risk, most if not all of which are class A missions. Accordingly, NASA shall provide to the Committees within 60 days of enactment of this Act a preliminary life cycle cost estimate, including any additions needed to achieve Class A classification, along with a year by year breakout of development costs.

The omnibus report further resolves separate House and Senate appropriations about starshade and life-finding technology by appropriating $15 million for exoplanet technology development, to include both starshade and search for life technology development. The bill appropriates $98.3 million for the Hubble Space Telescope and $85.2 million for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astrophysics (SOFIA). Congress states that NASA should not undertake any activities during FY 2018 in preparation for any FY 2019 senior review of SOFIA, and further states that SOFIA began its twenty-year prime mission in 2014 (observatories in prime mission are typically not included in a senior review of the division's portfolio). The bill continues to fully fund the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at $533.7 million. Astrophysics Research & Analysis (under Astrophysics Research) defaults to the requested $74.1 million appropriated in the House report language. By our calculations, this leaves $442.9 million for the rest of the Astrophysics division portfolio (including Physics of the Cosmos, Astrophysics Explorer, and additional small programs under the Research and Cosmic Origins lines); the FY18 request was $452.8 million for the same lines, leaving a $9.9 million unresolved shortfall.


The omnibus includes no further language about Heliophysics, thus defaulting to the Senate report language expressing support for the continued implementation of the the heliophysics Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, and Educate initiative and the Space Weather Action Plan (SWAP).


After several years of flat funding, NSF receives a 3.5% boost to its top line in the FY 2018 omnibus bill, with a 5% boost to the Research and Research Activities (R&RA) line in particular. In the report, Congressional appropriators explain:

This strong investment in basic research reflects the Congress' growing concern that China and other competitors are outpacing the United States in terms of research spending, as noted in the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board.

The decrease in the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction is due to the ramp-down in associated costs as new major facilities approach completion, as is the case with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Both of our community's major facilities, LSST and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), continue to receive full funding for their construction.


Office of Science (SC)

The omnibus appropriates a significant increase (16% over FY 2017) to the DOE SC, the largest source of federal funding for physical science research, which had been targeted for a significant cut in the FY 2018 request. Astronomical science research is funded within the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR), High Energy Physics (HEP), and Nuclear Physics (NP) divisions of the SC.

Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR)

ASCR receives a boost in funding to support high performance computing efforts, including $205 million for the Exascale Computing Project. Appropriators also specifically designate $10 million for the Computational Sciences Graduate Fellowship program.

High Energy Physics (HEP)

HEP is appropriated a 5% increase in Research. The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), in its final development stages, is fully funded at $17.5 million, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Camera (LSSTCam) continued development is fully funded at $9.8 million.

Nuclear Physics (NP)

The omnibus agreement provides $10 million for the Stable Isotope Production Facility and $5.2 million or the Gamma-Ray Energy Tracking Array (GRETA).