By Christine Ray, GSA Science Policy Fellow

U.S. Capitol Building - Credit: snty-tact (Talk) Creative Commons
U.S. Capitol Building – Credit: snty-tact (Talk) Creative Commons

In the month of April, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and NSF Director Sethuramen Panchanathan faced hearings in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to defend their agencies’ respective budget requests. These hearings, like many others each spring, occur annually as part of the appropriations process. After the President’s Budget Request, which outlines each federal agency’s plans and priorities for that fiscal year and the budget required to achieve them, is released, appropriations committees in the House and Senate hold hearings to review those budgets as they work toward developing their own respective appropriations bills. To learn more about how this appropriations process works, you can check out the budget and appropriations overview guide in GSA’s Policy Toolkit.

This year, the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 was released on March 9th, with agencies rolling out more detailed justifications for their budgets later that month. The request included budget increases for all federal science agencies, including a total of $27.2 billion dollars for NASA (a 7% increase from FY 2023 appropriations, with $8.3 billion requested for its Science Mission Directorate), and $11.3 billion dollars for NSF (a 16% increase from FY 2023 appropriations). A month later, Administrator Nelson and Dr. Panchanathan arrived on Capitol Hill prepared to justify these amounts to Congress. While these hearings are par for the course as appropriations move forward, this year the two agency heads faced a task perhaps more daunting than in years past as legislation cutting discretionary spending (the category under which the science agency budgets fall) back to FY 2022 levels in exchange for raising the national debt limit (the total amount of money that the federal government is allowed to borrow) was under discussion in the House.

In general, Senators and Representatives on both sides of the aisle had positive things to say about the two agencies, recognizing the critical role they play in the U.S. science and technology ecosystem. During the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee Hearings for NSF and NASA on April 19th, Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) credited NSF for having “established the United States as the international leader in scientific and technology advancement” and commended its efforts to address research security and intellectual property theft, and called NASA’s achievements in 2022 “almost too numerous to list,” mentioning the awe and fascination he and other Americans felt watching the Artemis I launch and viewing the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Similarly, during her opening remarks in the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee hearing for both agencies on April 18th, Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) recognized both agencies for being “on the cutting edge of technical innovation, and instrumental in training the next generation of scientists…which are so important to our future economic competitiveness in this country.”

In fact, during NASA’s House hearing, Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-TX) forwent his time to question Administrator Nelson, instead praising NASA for its inspirational mission. “There are hard things going on in this country right now, and we can talk about cuts, and we can talk about inflation…none of that at the end of the day matters,” he said, referring to previous comments concerning government spending and the nation’s debt. “Your mission is an inspirational one…all of those things are gonna happen, but you know what I know is gonna happen, is in November of 2024, you’re gonna launch on another deep space mission around the Moon, and I can’t wait to watch it.”

But, as Rep. Ellzey had alluded to, other members’ questions were more focused on government spending. “You’re aware this country is $32 trillion dollars in debt, correct?” asked Rep. Ben Cline (R-VA) during the House Appropriations hearing for NSF. “You’re aware the president’s budget proposes trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, correct? Do you provide any offsets for [NSF’s requested] increase?” During NASA’s hearing in the House, Administrator Nelson faced similar questions from Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA). “With NASA deep into its Artemis mission to send American astronauts back to the moon, it is now more important than ever that Congress hold NASA accountable to their schedules and budgets to prevent ballooning mission costs,” said the Representative, referring to recent Artemis III mission programs experiencing cost growths and deadline extensions.  “Recognizing that we have a blooming national debt and a deficit every year, what areas of NASA would you look to cut so that you can prioritize the most important missions at NASA?”

Another common theme throughout the hearings was maintaining the U.S.’s status as the global leader in science and technology amid unprecedented investments in these areas from the Chinese government. Competition with China has been a key focus of the 118th Congress since it began, with the creation of the new House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee holding a hearing on the subject in February, and the Senate currently preparing a new authorizing bill to spur competitive scientific advancements – a follow up of sorts to the House-led Chips and Science Act the previous year.

 “We are currently facing intense global competition like we have never seen before,” said Dr. Panchanathan in his opening remarks to both the House and Senate subcommittees. “Our competitors are investing heavily in key technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and they seek to outcompete us. Our ability to achieve scientific breakthroughs and unlock the promise of technological developments will determine our continued global leadership, and our success is vital to our economic and national security.” The NSF director went on to outline how the agency’s FY 2024 budget request, guided by last year’s Chips and Science Act, would be key to meeting these challenges by investing in fundamental exploratory research, building the agency’s Technological Innovation Partnerships (TIP) Directorate, and creating opportunities for a broader range of demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic groups across the country.

Competition with China was brought up repeatedly in questions from members of both committees, too. “China is the big issue. They’re our competitor and we need to stay with them. Can you talk about China’s ambitions getting to the moon, [and the impacts of] the House majority’s efforts to go back to the FY22 [funding levels]?” asked Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) during NASA’s hearing in the House. “We need to protect our interests going to a very critical part of the Moon’s surface,” answered Administrator Nelson, alluding to the agency’s Artemis III mission to send astronauts to the lunar south pole, an area covered in deep craters that see little sunlight where water and other volatile compounds could be trapped. “If you let China get there first, what’s to stop them from saying ‘we’re here, this is our area, you stay out!’ That’s why it’s important for us to get there on an international mission and establish the rules of the road.”

“If we [are going to] maintain our competitive edge, we have to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery, and NASA and [NSF] both have long, storied histories of helping our country do that,” said Patty Murray (D-WA), the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “House Republicans have been calling for cuts to non-defense discretionary programs to fiscal year 2022 levels…can you talk specifically about how that would impact NSF programs?” To this, Dr. Panchanathan mentioned NSF’s AI institutes, its National Quantum Virtual Laboratory, its Regional Innovation Engines Program, and its workforce training and development efforts authorized by Chips and Science as just some of the agency’s programs that would be negatively affected. “This is a very, very important moment in our nation’s history…we cannot take any steps back. We have to move forward,” answered the director.  

But despite the vocal, bipartisan support that both NSF and NASA received in their budget hearings, with both sides recognizing the agencies’ roles in maintaining U.S. scientific leadership, strengthening the economy, and bolstering national security, the House voted to cut discretionary spending in FY 2024 back to FY 2022 levels the following week. The Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023, which passed in the House 217 to 215, would not only increase the federal debt limit in exchange for making these cuts, but also limit annual discretionary spending growth to 1 percent for the next decade – something that could seriously impede the ability for NASA, NSF, and other federal science agencies to achieve their missions. It is now up to the White House, Senate and House to reach agreement on both the debt limit and future appropriations levels, which could decide the fate of U.S. science funding next fiscal year, and potentially for many years to come.