US Science Funding In Danger Of Being Frozen Due To Political Maneuvering In Congress

The US Capitol Building. Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

The US Congress has just returned from a seven-week-long summer break, and among other things, it’s got a lot of science funding to decide on. As ever, it’s a huge chaotic jumble of offers and counteroffers, and Science has given a breakdown of some of the major deals that may or may not be made in the next few weeks to months.

Importantly, one responsibility that Congress must undertake is that it needs to pass an overall government spending bill in order to allow it to operate for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. As ever, the Republicans are pondering on whether or not to agree on the existing spending pact made with President Obama.

As many of them are hoping for a Trump victory this November, they are hoping to hold out on the budget decisions for as long as possible. It’s possible that, if they want to play around with the budget – increase military spending while cutting domestic programs, for example – they will simply extend the 2016 budget into early 2017 on a temporary basis.

What this so-called “continuing resolution” (CR) means is that the budgets of federal research agencies will be frozen well into next year. Consequently, new science programs cannot be started and new funds for much-needed projects cannot be appropriated until further notice.

One such project is a major mission to one of the moons of Jupiter, likely to be Europa. NASA is investing far more money into Mars at present, and they only requested $49.6 million for a potential Europa mission for the next fiscal year.

Curiously, a Republican-led commission in the House has requested $260 million, which is good news for fans of the Jovian system. However, if the CR comes into effect, any hope of this project getting started in the near future will die.

The Obama administration is keen to keep on funding the Earth Sciences, but many Republicans are attempting to defund much of it. David Peterlin/Shutterstock

Zika is another hot topic worth mentioning. The virus, which is spreading across parts of the US, puts few adults at risk but is highly damaging and life-threatening to unborn children. A vaccine won’t be ready in time for the current epidemic – which may end in three years’ time – so containment is a priority, and this needs funding.

Both public health groups and the White House want Congress to finally resolve a battle between two opposing groups to approve such funding. A bipartisan group agreed to provide $1.1 billion, which was $800 million below that which was requested by the Obama administration.

The compromise was squashed, however, when certain lawmakers tried to add clauses to it which would partly defund Obamacare, lift pesticide-based environmental regulations, and even restrict the funding to services providing abortions. The hope is that funding is approved without such draconian measures this time around.

Fusion research, which hopes to ultimately create a power source that has no carbon footprint and has a near-infinite energy supply, is also up for debate. The Department of Energy (DOE) has been given a 1 percent increase, not the 4 percent requested by the White House. Unfortunately, the two chambers can’t agree on how this money should be spent. The Senate wants to cut the fusion budget by a third, but the House wants to boost it a little.

Perhaps most frustratingly, there are major disagreements over NASA’s Earth Science budget, a significant portion of which looks at the omnipresent and worsening threat of climate change. The White House is keen to keep funding the Earth Science budget into 2017, but many influential Republicans have often expressed their disdain for this, and want funds directed to planetary exploration instead.

The war over science continues.

There are questions over how much money should be invested in cancer research, too. A and N photography/Shutterstock

[H/T: Science]

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