29 June 2022

House Appropriations at a Crossroads with Decadal Recommendations

Bethany Johns American Astronomical Society (AAS)

On 28 June, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2023 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies bill on a 31 to 24 vote. This bill is important to AAS members because this legislation funds NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Accompanying the bill is a report that contains more detailed guidance to agencies but is not legally binding. Even so, the executive branch takes the report language seriously to maintain good relations with the other branch of government because, as the saying goes, “The president proposes and Congress disposes.” 

The legislation includes minimal funding growth — and in some cases, decreased funding — for NASA science and the NSF. This suggested appropriation is especially disappointing given Congressional support for science on the authorization side via USICA/COMPETES. Congressional support for all the astronomical decadal surveys — astronomy, planetary, and solar physics — is clear in the report language. The decadal surveys are used to explain increased support when there are concerns that an agency is delaying high-priority missions, as well as restricting support for the next decadal recommendations until flagship missions from the previous decade are completed.

The NASA Science Mission Directorate is proposed to be funded at $7,905 million, a 4% increase from fiscal year (FY) 2022 Appropriations. Most of this increase is given to the Earth Science Division. Planetary Science has an increase of $3,200 million, but at a much smaller rate of 3% from FY 2022. Both Astrophysics and Heliophysics experienced steeper decreases than those proposed in the FY 2023 President’s Budget Request. The House now appropriates Astrophysics at $1,525 million, a 3% decrease from FY 2022, and Heliophysics at $760 million, a 2% decrease from FY 2022.

Funding for NSF is proposed at $9,631 million, a 9% increase from FY 2022. Grant funding for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate and the Astronomical Sciences (AST) Division is allocated from NSF’s Research & Related Activities account, which is funded at $7,706 million, an 8% increase. We do not yet know how the MPS Directorate and AST Division will be funded, because appropriations for NSF never get into the weeds of how the directorates and divisions are funded. However, we can get a hint of how the White House may fund these accounts from their FY 2023 budget request, and the prognosis is not good. Of all the NSF Directorates, MPS got the smallest funding increase of 10% compared to actual FY2021 spending, while the largest funding increase of 23% went to both the Geophysics and Engineering Directorates. Then, within MPS, the AST division got the smallest funding increase of 1.7%, while the largest increase went to the Chemistry division at 10%. Given that astronomy does not seem to be a priority for this White House, the AST Division could likely remain flat funded for FY2023.

Flat funding for the AST Division will make it very difficult to balance funding for grants and large scientific facilities. Both Congress and NSF have stated that NSF should continue to support world-class scientific research facilities and instrumentation. However, we have yet to see any sign that NSF is working to secure funding to phase in the astronomy decadal priorities (Giant Magellan Telescope, Thirty Meter Telescope, Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4, and Next Generation Very Large Array).

There is still an opportunity to work with the Senate to fund the priorities in the decadal surveys as they complete their work on the appropriation bills before the 2023 fiscal year begins on 1 October 2022. However, we should expect a continuing resolution to fund the government at previous funding levels until after the midterm elections and the new Congress convenes in 2023.

The astronomical decadal surveys are considered the “gold standard” of scientific advice to the federal government by the White House, Congress, and their staff. We are encouraged that the report language supports and directs implementation of the decadals even if this year's appropriations do not yet match that stated goal. The AAS looks forward to working with policymakers to fully support all the recommendations in the decadal surveys. The astronomical sciences can help secure American leadership in science and innovation. True innovation begins once we embrace our human nature to explore and understand the universe.

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