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Looking Ahead to a Potential Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, How Do the Astronomical Sciences Fare?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 01:23

The last few days have brought welcome news of a potential end to the government shutdown, maybe. For those of us hoping to improve the environment for federally funded research, the prospect of accompanying budget talks that address long-term spending are the most ear-perking news we have heard in days. Whether you believe there can be a grand, or baby grand, or even Schroeder's-piano-size bargain, its important to look at where this Congress left off when they last considered funding the government in something like the "normal" way.

There's a lot to say here, so I will break discussion of fiscal year (FY) 2014 appropriations into a series of posts. I'll also put together some background articles on some of the things I've been learning about. These won't necessarily be better or worse than the coverage you could read elsewhere, but will come from someone with a background like your own, for whatever that's worth to you. Let's begin with the top line of the budget and work our way down over the coming weeks.

Since the passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) (plus modifications from the fiscal cliff deal in 2012) and the failure of the supercommittee it spawned, the spending debate in Washington has largely centered around whether or not discretionary spending should be at or below the sequestered budget caps. Let's break that down a bit, shall we?

For our purposes, the BCA established two things that affect funding for the astronomical sciences. First, it put in place budgetary caps for discretionary spending programs, meant to tamp down the budget deficit (the annual difference between revenue and spending), for FY 2012 to 2021. Second, it created a so-called supercommittee, with members from both parties and chambers of Congress, tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures (when added up over 10 years) by January 2012. If that effort failed (spoiler alert!), the BCA mandated $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction spending cuts over the same time period: the sequester. The cuts were to be evenly distributed over the 10 years and divided roughly equally between defense and non-defense discretionary programs (discretionary spending programs are all those that require Congressional appropriations legislation).

In the first year sequestration was imposed, FY 2013, that year's appropriations were basically given a bowl cut, with a bowl about 8% shorter than the discretionary budget's already shortened hair (this was largely, but not entirely, due to the sequester; more on this in another post). For FY 2014 on, the sequester is imposed as a further reduction in the spending caps mentioned above. This gives Congress the flexibility to get discretionary spending inside the bowl however it would like, using the normal appropriations process. Funding the government with continuing resolutions (CRs) currently under debate, which largely continue the previous year's programs forward at the same spending levels, leaves considerably less room for flexibility.

Broadly speaking, the more fiscally conservative members of Congress would like to see the discretionary spending levels at or below the sequestered caps, while liberal members want to see growth in the discretionary slice of the budgetary pie. If we look at the few appropriations bills that have taken the first step in their journey and passed through their committees, we see that ideological difference in the very top-line numbers. The House appropriations bills shove everything underneath the sequestered budget cap, while the Senate side uses an entirely different bowl: the pre-sequester budget cap. For the agencies that fund the astronomical sciences, this amounts to differences roughly in the amount of the potential sequester for FY 2014, about 7.5% of the total. For the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, the Senate has allocated $5.1 billion for FY 2014, while the House pins that number at $4.8B. Similarly, for NSF's research and related activities (of which astronomy is only about 4%), the Senate bill sets funding at $6B vs. $5.7B in the House. The bills for DOE-Science show a similar disparity at $5.2B in the Senate vs. $4.6B in the House.

Generally speaking, the Senate numbers tend to restore budgets to near FY 2012 levels (i.e., undoing the 2013 sequester cuts), while the House appropriations seek to solidify or even further cut the sequestered budget numbers of FY 2013. In the unlikely event that the House's funding levels were to be adopted outright, the consequences for the astronomical sciences would be quite dire, with already low grant award rates dropping toward 10% (if you could see it, this link would support that, but...) and major projects like the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, Mars 2020, and the James Webb Space Telescope likely to see delays and subsequent cost overruns.

It is highly unlikely that either the House or Senate numbers would be adopted outright and codified into law, though we would be facing the sequestered budget cap for the total FY 2014 budget if no changes are made to current law (i.e., more bowl cuts). As budgetary negotiations lurch ahead over the coming months, we'll be working with lawmakers both directly and through coalitions for basic research funding to establish as robust and balanced a funding profile as we can for FY 2014 and beyond.

In the next post, we'll dive a little deeper into the proposed budget to see how the different aspects of our sciences fare. We'll also look at a few other astronomical science policy concerns, including the proposed re-organization of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs, restarting production of Pu-238 for deep space exploration, and the potential politicization of the peer-review process.

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
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