Washington, D.C. – President Barack Obama released the final budget request of his presidency on Tuesday, 9 February. The budget calls for just over $4 trillion in spending, with $152.3 billion for research and development, a $6.2 billion or 4.2 percent increase over fiscal year 2016.

Although R&D typically falls under the discretionary budget, which Congress allocates each year through the appropriations process, this year the President’s Request classifies significant portions of the R&D budget as mandatory spending, which is not affected by budget caps but does require new legislation to initiate. New mandatory spending makes up $4 billion of the $6.2 billion R&D increases. Overall, most of the federal budget is mandatory spending, including Social Security and Medicare, which is not covered by the appropriations process. Of the $4 trillion budget, $1.1 trillion is for discretionary spending, which is $30 billion over FY2016.

“Because jobs in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are projected to grow faster than other jobs in the years ahead, the Budget makes critical investments in math and science,” Obama said in a message to Congress.

President Barack Obama works at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Feb. 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The nitty gritty

Although the President’s Budget Request sets high goals for science funding, the way in which it seeks the funding could be problematic – much of the funding increases are under mandatory spending rather than discretionary spending. By requesting funding through mandatory spending, the Budget is able to request spending above current caps while staying under budget law.

However, in order to enact new mandatory spending, Congress would need to pass new legislation separate from annual appropriations. The president and Congress establish programs through the authorization process and delegate funding to the programs through the appropriations process.

“President Obama’s final budget proposal contains all manner of new spending and tax increases, and a troubling reliance on mandatory spending to skirt spending limits. There will be little appetite in Congress for mandatory spending that diminishes fiscal discipline and congressional oversight,” Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said in a statement.

His counterpart in the House of Representatives, Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, said in a statement, “At the end of the day, the ‘power of the purse’ lies with the Congress – not the White House – and we will use that power to decide what to cut and what to fund.”

Nita Lowey (D-NY), Ranking Member on the House Committee on Appropriations commended the President’s Budget Request and asked her Republican colleagues to advance a budget resolution that “keeps faith with the Bipartisan Budget Agreement enacted in November 2015.”

Breakdown by science-related agency

Department of Energy

The President’s Budget requests a total of $32.5 billion for DOE, with $30.2 billion in discretionary funding and $2.3 billion in new mandatory funding, according to DOE.

DOE’s Office of Science, which supports basic science research, requested $5.67 billion, up 6.1 percent from last year, with all but $100 million in discretionary spending. Office of Science programs include: advanced scientific computing research, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, high energy physics, fusion energy sciences, and nuclear physics.

Within the energy programs, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, requested $2.9 billion, which is 40.1 percent above FY16.

United States Geological Survey

The Budget requests a total of $1.17 billion for USGS, all in discretionary funding, an increase of $106.8 million over the enacted 2016 budget, according to USGS. The budget would maintain core USGS science programs that work on protecting our water supply, forecasting extreme events like floods, exploring for new energy resources, researching climate change effects on endangered species, and understanding natural disasters like earthquakes, among other programs.

The USGS requests $171.4 million for climate and land use change research, up $31.5 million, 18 percent, from last year, $149.7 million for natural hazards, up $10.7 million, 7 percent, $99.5 million for energy and mineral resources and environmental health, up $5 million, 5 percent, $228 million for water resources, up $17.3 million, 7.6 percent, and $118.4 million for core science systems, up $6.8 million, 5.7 percent.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Budget requests a total of $19 billion for NASA, down from last year’s $19.3 billion, according to NASA. The $19 billion also includes $763 million in mandatory spending.

NASA’s science division requests $5.6 billion, with $298 million in mandatory spending. Including the mandatory spending, the science division is up $11.1 million, or 0.2 percent, from last year. However, without the mandatory spending boost, the funding drops by around $290 million, or 5.1 percent.

Earth science, which is under NASA’s science division, requests $2 billion, an increase of $111 million including $60 million in mandatory spending, making it one of the few NASA programs to see an increase. Planetary science would see large decreases, even including mandatory spending.

National Science Foundation

The President’s Budget requests a total of $7.96 billion, with $7.56 billion for discretionary funding and $400 million for new mandatory funding. The budget request is 6.5 percent over the enacted FY2016 budget – a $501 million increase, according to NSF.

However, without the $400 million in new mandatory funding – which would require Congress’ approval of new legislation– NSF’s budget increases by 1.3 percent.

The Geosciences Directorate at NSF requests $1.4 billion, with $79.3 million in mandatory funding. Funding increases by 6 percent including mandatory funding and by 0.08 percent without the mandatory funding.

The Budget highlights several initiatives that involving geoscience research, including $43 million to improve our preparedness and reaction capabilities to natural disasters and $152 million to support research and education in renewable and alternative energy sources.


By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow