President Biden speaks at the White House last month. Credit: Adam Schultz/The White House
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a 16 March post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.
President Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2024 seeks increases across most science agencies and retains his prior requests’ emphasis on research related to emerging technologies and climate change. It also prioritizes major initiatives such as NSF’s Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA–H). And, in a new move, it would significantly expand funding for fusion energy technology development.
The budget’s ambitions fall short of those set out in last year’s CHIPS and Science Act. The request undershoots by $4.3 billion the funding target the act set for NSF and comes in at almost $750 million below the target for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. And the budget asks Congress to fund the regional technology hub program the act authorized in the Commerce Department through a special $4 billion multiyear appropriation, well below the act’s $10 billion target.
The administration’s proposals face a highly uncertain political dynamic in Congress, as this is the first request since the Democrats lost control of the House. Although Biden’s previous appropriations have required Republican buy-in to clear the threat of a Senate filibuster, House Republicans will be newly empowered to press their agenda to reduce nondefense spending. The year’s budget negotiations have only begun to play out, but the political headwinds pushing against funding increases are likely to be strong.
Here is a rundown of the proposals for science agencies:
DOE Office of Science
The administration aims to raise the budget for the Office of Science by 9% from its 2023 funding, to $8.8 billion. Among the office’s programs, the one receiving by far the largest proposed increase is Fusion Energy Sciences. The request backs up the “bold decadal vision” to develop fusion pilot plants that the administration announced last year. The more than $1 billion sought for the program would ramp up efforts to support private fusion ventures as well as fund new R&D centers focused on problems related to plant construction. Other priority initiatives include the launch of Microelectronics Science Research Centers authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, the continuation of efforts to develop alternative sources of isotopes that are currently available only from Russia, and an increase in grant sizes to enable graduate students to receive stipends of $45 000.
DOE Applied Energy
The administration continues to seek sizable increases for selected energy R&D activities, including a 38% boost for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy that would bring its budget to $650 million. Proposals for renewable energy include an 83% increase, to $216 million, for geothermal energy and a nearly tripled budget of $385 million for wind energy, dedicated mostly to two offshore power generation initiatives. A cut for the Office of Nuclear Energy is accounted for largely by the phaseout of a project focused on small modular reactors. The administration seeks $35 million for planning a new national laboratory that would be sited at a historically Black college or university or another minority-serving institution and tasked with conducting multidisciplinary research on regional and local energy issues.
NSF’s budget would increase by about 15%, to $11.3 billion, building on the 12% increase Congress provided last year through a $1 billion supplementary appropriation. With a funding bump of about one-third, to $1.19 billion, the recently created TIP directorate would receive the largest increase, percentage wise, across NSF’s directorates; the Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate would receive the smallest bump, rising 9% to $1.84 billion. Priority research areas identified across the directorates include climate change, advanced manufacturing, advanced wireless communications, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, microelectronics, and quantum information science. NSF proposes starting one new major construction project: a Leadership-Class Computing Facility initiative, at an estimated cost of up to $620 million, that would upgrade research supercomputing infrastructure in five cities.
In the previous appropriations cycle, Congress boosted NIST’s budget by 32%, to $1.63 billion, though about half the increase was earmarked for university construction and research projects tangential to the agency’s mission. The administration now seeks to increase the budget for NIST’s core activities to $1.63 billion, which is close to the target set in the CHIPS and Science Act. Top priorities for NIST include expanding its manufacturing programs and addressing a severe maintenance and recapitalization backlog at its campuses in Colorado and Maryland. The administration proposes doubling NIST’s facilities maintenance budget, to $262 million. NIST has estimated that fully remedying the problem will take $300 million to $400 million in construction funding annually for the next 12 years, along with $120 million to $150 million per year for maintenance for at least that long.
A proposed 6% increase for the Science Mission Directorate would bring its budget to almost $8.3 billion, with the largest increases directed to the Earth Science and Planetary Science Divisions. Within Planetary Science, $949 million is requested for the Mars Sample Return mission, far outstripping the annual budget for any of the directorate’s other projects. NASA warns that the mission’s cost estimates are escalating, and the agency anticipates having either to descope the mission or to divert funding from other efforts. After funding was diverted last year from the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, that mission’s annual budget is now poised to reach higher levels than previously anticipated to accommodate its own cost increase. As a new cost-controlling measure, the administration proposes cutting the Heliophysics Division budget by 7%, to $751 million, primarily by pausing work on the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, a major mission to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere that is just starting to ramp up.
National Nuclear Security Administration
The NNSA budget would increase by 8%, to $23.8 billion, with its Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering portfolio also rising by 8%, to just under $3.2 billion. Within that amount, the administration proposes to cut the Inertial Confinement Fusion program by 5%, to $602 million, broadly attributing the move to “reprioritization of resources to support higher priority NNSA programmatic efforts.” However, the administration does anticipate ramping up funding for fusion in future fiscal years. Further, the historic achievement of fusion ignition at NNSA’s National Ignition Facility last December took place late in the budget formulation process, so it may have a greater influence on future requests.
Department of Defense
The administration proposes to increase funding for DOD’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation accounts by 2%, to $147 billion. That would continue a trend that has already more than doubled funding for RDT&E since the beginning of the Trump administration. The relatively small increase percentage-wise, however, would entail cuts to earlier-stage R&D accounts, including a 15% reduction in basic research funding to $2.5 billion, close to its FY 2019 level. The annual budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would increase by 8%, to $4.39 billion.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NOAA’s budget would increase by 10%, to $6.8 billion, under the request. The administration states that the elevated funding level partly reflects “a new 10-year, $25 billion cost profile for NOAA weather satellites.” The agency is completing the acquisition of new polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites and is planning future constellations for geostationary observations and space weather monitoring.
US Geological Survey
Echoing its ambitious proposals for the previous two years, the administration seeks a 19% increase, to $1.79 billion, for the USGS. Additional funding would both expand existing programs and establish new initiatives, particularly surrounding research on the emission and absorption of greenhouse gases and the impacts of climate change.
National Institutes of Health
Within NIH, the budget for ARPA–H would jump by 66%, to $2.5 billion, whereas the budget for the rest of NIH would increase by only about 2%, to $48.6 billion, with many of its institutes and centers slated for flat funding. The administration requests a special, multiyear, $20 billion appropriation for a pandemic preparedness and biodefense initiative, of which NIH would receive $2.7 billion. The administration proposed a similarly ambitious preparedness initiative last year that Congress declined to fund.
- The Department of Education requests $350 million for expanding R&D infrastructure at four-year minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities.
- The State Department requests $150 million to support the US rejoining the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which it withdrew from in 2019.
- The National Telecommunications Information Administration requests $20 million to create two programs focused on identifying ways to share and repurpose portions of the radiofrequency spectrum. It also seeks $8 million for upgrades and repairs to the Table Mountain Field Site and Radio Quiet Zone.
- The Transportation Department requests $19 million to establish the ARPA for Infrastructure (ARPA–I) that Congress authorized through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.