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Astronomical Sciences in the Final FY 2019 Spending Agreement

Friday, February 22, 2019 - 06:30

With a set of late votes Valentines' night and a presidential signature on Friday, 15 February, the spending fight for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 has finally ended. The appropriations process for FY 2019 appeared to be working historically well when five (of the twelve) appropriations bills passed on time for the first time in 20 years, and then broke down in an even more historic fashion with the longest shutdown in US government history. In the end, a second shutdown was averted when the final seven appropriations bills passed with overwhelming majorities as part of a single package. Six of the seven bills were conferenced — negotiated between the House and the Senate — before the shutdown (and before the new Congress), while the seventh was finally negotiated by a new bipartisan, bicameral conference committee in the weeks following the shutdown.

What I discuss here includes provisions from both the 1100+-page bill itself (H.J.Res. 31) and the accompanying 600+-page explanatory statement. While only the bill is actual law, the agencies generally follow the guidance from the explanatory statement as if it were law, since it describes the intent and wishes of Congressional appropriators. Appropriations bills and accompanying explanatory statements only apply for the one fiscal year, and the original House and Senate explanatory statements hold whenever not directly overruled by the conference statement.

The bottom line for the astronomical sciences — and all of basic science research, really — is that, for the second year in a row, basic research funding has increased across the board as Congress rejects the Trump administration's proposals to significantly reduce federal nondefense discretionary spending generally and basic research spending specifically. Other news outlets have covered the implications for science, space, and/or federal research and development more broadly; I am here to highlight the particular spending provisions and implications for astronomy, planetary science, and solar physics at NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The interactive plot below shows the percentage change in budgets from FY 2018 for all of the relevant astronomical science budget lines for FY 2019. I include the information for the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science, though that was fully funded at the start of FY 2019 (details on the September blog post).

The actual numbers are in the table below.


FY 2017 FY 2018 FY 2019 Request FY 2019 House FY 2019 Senate FY 2019 Final
NASA $19,653.3 $20,736.1 $19,892.2 $21,545.7 $21,323.4 $21,772.9
Science Mission Directorate (SMD) $5,762.2 $6,211.5 $5,895.0 $6,680.6 $6,400.0 $6,905.7
Planetary Science $1,827.5 $2,217.9 $2,234.7 $2,758.5 $2,201.5 $2,758.5
Astrophysics+The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) $1,352.3 $1,384.1 $1,184.4 $1,333.6 $1,547.8 $1,496.2
Heliophysics $674.7 $688.5 $690.7 $688.5 $720.0 $720.0
NSF $7,472.2 $7,767.36 $7,472.0 $8,174.9 $8,068.7 $8,075.0
Research & Related Activities (R&RA)* $6,033.7 $6,332.7 $6,047.0 $6,547.8 $6,556.2 $6,520.0
Major Research Equipment & Facility Construction (MREFC)* $209 $104.6 $198.35 $376.04 $249.25 $295.74
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) $99.67 $57.8 $48.82 $123.82 $48.82 $48.82
Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) $20 $20 $16.13 $16.13 $16.13 $16.13

*The conference bill shifts the Arctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) into the MREFC account (from R&RA, where the request and House versions bookkept it), so I have adjusted the rest of the numbers to also reflect that accounting, for consistency.

Let us take a closer look at the NASA and NSF details.


The administration had again sought to eliminate the NASA Office of Education, but also re-branded it last summer as the "Office of STEM Engagement." The final FY 2019 appropriation affirms the name change, increases the office's funding by 10% from FY 2018, and includes support for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR, $21 million), Space Grant ($44 million), Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP, $33 million), and the Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers ($5 million).

NASA's SMD got an outsized share of the overall NASA increase. Much of the SMD increase goes to fund Congressional (Europa Clipper and Lander) and administration (Lunar Exploration and Discovery) priorities in the Planetary Science Division, but the Astrophysics and Heliophysics Divisions also received overall increases, while the Earth Science Division's funding remained flat. See the figure below for the last decade of funding for NASA's four science divisions (in same-year dollars).

The appropriations legislation specifies division-level budgets and mandates spending levels for some programs and/or missions within each division. NASA now must put together an operating plan that specifies exactly how the programs will spend the full appropriation. That operating plan gets approved internally by the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee. For now, I will outline what we do know about the specific program and mission spending levels, separated by division:

Astrophysics+JWST: Rather than adopting the 12% cut and cancellation of the top-consensus priority flagship mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), sought by the administration, Congress grew the Astrophysics Division budget by 8% and gave funding to WFIRST. The final appropriation specifically stipulates:

  • Full support at the requested level ($45 million) for the Science Activation program, bookkept within NASA Astrophysics, for SMD program- and mission-related education and public outreach.
  • Support of WFIRST, proposed by the administration for cancellation, at $312.2 million, with instruction to stay on budget to the $3.2B target set after the fall 2017 WIETR report. [We have not confirmed the potential schedule or budget impact from the shutdown.]
  • $10 million each for starshade technology development and search for life technology development.
  • A higher-than-requested $98.3 million for Hubble and $85.2 million for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
  • No adoption of the House language requiring that NASA spend $10 million on partnerships with private and philanthropic organizations to search for technosignatures. The language does not, however, seem to forbid NASA from funding technosignature-related research; in fact, NASA has recently commissioned a report from the NASA Technosignatures Workshop to get an idea of the state of the field and ensure that proposal calls more clearly reflect whether technosignature research is an eligible topic of study.

While I have bookkept JWST with the Astrophysics budget in the table and plot above, the conference agreement keeps it separate. The legislation does allow the new development baseline cost for JWST of $8.8 billion, but it also "fired a warning shot," as Jeff Foust put it at SpaceNews. It is worth reading the language for yourself (emphasis mine):

"There is profound disappointment with both NASA and its contractors regarding mismanagement, complete lack of careful oversight, and overall poor basic workmanship on JWST, which has undergone two significant reviews because of failures on the part of NASA and its commercial sector partner. NASA and its commercial partners seem to believe that congressional funding for this project and other development efforts is an entitlement, unaffected by failures to stay on schedule or within budget. This attitude ignores the opportunity cost to other NASA activities that must be sacrificed or delayed. The agreement includes a general provision to adjust the cap for JWST to $8,802,700,000, an increase of $802,700,000 above the previous cap. NASA should strictly adhere to this cap or, under this agreement, JWST will have to find cost savings or cancel the mission. NASA and its contractors are expected to implement the recommendations of both the most recent independent review and the previous Casani report and to continue cooperation with JWST's standing review board. The agreement does not adopt the reorganization of JWST into Astrophysics, and the JWST Program Office shall continue the reporting structure adopted after the Casani report and reiterated by the recent Webb Independent Review Board.

Planetary Science: With a nearly-24% increase just from FY 2018 to FY 2019, NASA's Planetary Science Division budget has now officially doubled in just five years (since FY 2014). The final appropriation specifically stipulates:

  • Full support of Europa Clipper ($545 million), a decadal priority, and the follow-on Europa Lander ($195 million) for launch in 2023 and 2025, respectively. Congress continues to refer to the Europa Lander as a decadal priority; however, the recent planetary science midterm reiterated its position as a far-term mission that needs to be prioritized in the next decadal. The actual bill also still requires that both missions launch on NASA's Space Launch System, which is tentatively slated to make its first uncrewed launch in 2021.
  • Support for planetary defense missions in development, the Direct Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) at $97 million and the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) at no less than $12 million.
  • No more than the requested amount ($218 million) for the new Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program, to include $21 million for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
  • That NASA fly the helicopter tech demonstration as part of the Mars2020 mission.

Heliophysics: The Heliophysics Division gets a 4.6% increase for FY 2019 and must spend $15 million on space weather research.


Overall, NSF received a 4% increase over FY 2018, making FY 2019 the second consecutive year of growth for the agency after a decade of virtually flat budgets. The R&RA account, by far the agency's largest as the home for all research grant and facility operations funding, will grow by 3%. At the request of the scientific community and other NSF stakeholders, Congress does not set directorate-level spending for the NSF, so we do not yet know the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or Geological Sciences (GEO) directorate numbers. That information will be determined as part of the NSF operating plan, which will need to be approved by the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee.

The final legislation did not adopt the House provision that would have front-loaded the rest of the LSST construction funding, but it does fully support LSST and DKIST at their requested amounts. The bill does boost the overall MREFC account significantly by shifting the AIMS project into MREFC and increasing the number of research vessels to be constructed by NSF. With many of the MREFC projects winding down, there might not have been an obvious wedge opening in the capital line to accommodate potential future large construction projects.

The NSF Education and Human Resources account will grow by just under 1%. The final appropriation specifically calls for funding to remain at the FY 2018 levels for the Advanced Technological Education Program ($66 million), the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program ($35 million), the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation ($46 million), and the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program ($64.5 million); increase slightly for the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program ($15 million); and increase by 25% for the Hispanic-Serving Institution program ($40 million).

Let's Do This Again in Seven Months: Looking Ahead to FY 2020

Completing appropriations nearly five months late means there are just over seven months left to complete the next round. FY 2020 begins 1 October 2019, and the public-facing component of the process has not even begun. The shutdown also shuttered the Office of Management and Budget — which oversees the annual president's budget request — so the budget will reportedly be being at least six weeks late, in mid-March. Before Congress completes FY 2020 appropriations, though, it will have to tackle not only the expiring debt ceiling, but also decide whether to adhere to the Budget Control Act discretionary spending caps for FY 2020-21, lift the caps (as they did for FY 2018-19), or allow sequestration to hit. The president's budget request will reportedly reflect the capped spending levels, meaning at least a 5% spending cut across the board, but it is unclear how Congress will handle this next round of the budget and appropriations process.

Ashlee N. Wilkins
John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
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