The Proposed Fiscal Year 2015 Budget: Thoughts on its Implications for Science

I’d like to make a few comments on the proposed US federal budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15, which starts in October), especially on its implications for science research and education in this country. First, I’ll acknowledge articles and blogs by Matt Hourihan (at the American Association for the Advancement for Science) and Josh Shiode (at the American Astronomical Society), which I’ve used for some of the information and figures below. I’m responsible though if I’ve misstated any facts or numbers, and as usual, any opinions I express about the current state of affairs are my own. I look forward to discussing these issues with scientists and other interested people, and as usual, you’re welcome to write or send me comments.

President Obama’s administration officially released its President’s Budget Request (PBR, but not the beer!) on 4th March, and the details are available on the White House’s website. The PBR is formulated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and it soon be evaluated and revised by the Appropriations Committees in Congress. The White House’s Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) plays a role in developing the budget, but naturally there are many other considerations involved as well, such as ensuring national security, strengthening the economy, maintaining healthcare and education programs, etc. Nonetheless, from the perspective of science research and education, the budget certainly could be better.

15p R&D Pie_AAAS

Unfortunately, the Budget Control Act puts spending caps on support for research and development (R&D). Assuming little to no additional revenue, there is not much room in the discretionary budget above FY 2014 levels. With three-quarters of the post-sequester spending reductions still in place (see my previous blog post), many agency R&D budgets are stagnant. The $3.901 trillion budget includes $136.5 billion for R&D, which is a 0.5% increase over FY 2014 but that doesn’t account for the 1.7% inflation rate. The divisions by agency are described by the above pie chart (courtesy: AAAS) and in this article. Funding for the physical sciences largely comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and other agencies and departments. Total research funding (basic+applied research) has dropped 1.9% below FY 2014 levels, which is only slightly above FY 2013 post-sequester levels.


The President has also proposed additional $56B of funding through the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OSGI), which would help the situation for many agencies, but it appears that Congress won’t have the stomach for it. As can be seen in the figure above (courtesy: Washington Post), an additional difficulty comes from differences between the revenue projections of the President and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); the former assumes revenue increases from some reduced tax breaks for wealthy Americans, to which Congress likely won’t agree. In that case, we may be headed back toward sequestration funding levels in FY 2016.


The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS, of which I’m a member) have expressed some criticism of the proposed budget: while they acknowledge the caps on discretionary spending, they argue that basic research and education could receive higher priority. A surprising cut that was proposed was to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is an aircraft telescope. The axing of SOFIA in 2015 is particularly vexing for astronomers because it occurred outside the established review process. The FY 2014 budget proposed a controversial government-wide reorganization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs, and this year’s budget includes a surprising cut (by 2/3!) to the STEM education budget within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Time will tell how education programs adapt to these changes, but cuts like these potentially hurt US competitiveness relative to Europe and East Asia as well as efforts toward improving science and math literacy.

According to Jack Burns (U. of Colorado, Boulder), “by lowering overall spending on the astronomical sciences, the Administration threatens the health of our technical workforce and the education and training of the next generation of space scientists. This is hard to swallow at a time when other countries are increasing their investments in science and technology.” Similarly, in Science magazine, William Press argues that, “it appears that [nations] who spend close to 3% of their GDP on R&D are the ones that compete most successfully. The United States is in that club now. We don’t want to fall out of it.”

I’m most interested in astronomy/astrophysics, because it’s my field, but other fields are affected as well. For example, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) only received a sub-inflationary increase (like most agencies), and the proposed budget includes a substantial cut to fusion energy research and to the US contribution to the International Fusion Experiment (ITER), though funding for energy efficiency and renewables would increase. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would also receive a cut in this budget.


Finally, as this bar graph shows, the budget prospects for nondefense discretionary spending will likely worsen in the coming years. “Mandatory spending” is controlled by different mechanisms than discretionary spending, and it includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, which are large programs, as well as food stamps, unemployment compensation, and other smaller ones. As a fraction of GDP, we can expect mandatory spending to continue increasing. On this point, I’ll first say that in my personal view, I’m wary of those who criticize these programs (or who refer to them pejoratively as “entitlements”), because such criticisms give space for extreme conservatives who would rather gut these programs and let the poor, ill, hungry, and elderly suffer on their own. Nonetheless, it appears that, the way that they are currently funded, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid programs is growing at an unsustainable rate (faster than inflation). The Affordable Care Act is helping, but it’s probably insufficient to resolve this situation, especially as more baby boomers draw on retirement and health care benefits. Long-term fiscal problems remain.

We also need to consider the current political situation in Congress. I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the AAS this week, and I’ll soon write my next blog post about that.

6 thoughts on “The Proposed Fiscal Year 2015 Budget: Thoughts on its Implications for Science

  1. Pingback: My Experience with the Congressional Visit Day | Science Political

  2. I’m grateful to Josh Shiode for pointing out a few errors in the initial version of this blog post, which I have since corrected. As usual, if you notice errors in any of my posts, please let me know.

  3. Pingback: Big Science and Big Data | Science Political

  4. A provocative article appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago about private funding of basic science research, which results in new opportunities and fills some gaps when government budgets shrink, but which also raises some concerns. (The article has generated quite a bit of debate among scientists’ circles.) For another perspective on this, take a look at this Union of Concerned Scientists blog post.

  5. Pingback: And the science budget debates continue… | Science Political

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