December 17, 2015

Friend or Foe of Science? The FY 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill

Posted by cbunge

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – and in the spirit of giving, Congress just released an enormous $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the entire federal government for fiscal year 2016 (FY16).  Since October 1st, when the fiscal year officially started, the federal government has been funded by a series of temporary funding bills – called continuing resolutions (CRs) – to give Congress time to compromise on spending levels and policy issues. Most recently, Congress has passed a CR through December 22nd. The spending bill, which is an omnibus package that comprises all 12 appropriations bills, will be voted on by Friday. If you’d like to explore in detail how we’ve arrived at this point, a quick refresher of our federal science funding updates or a skim of our letters to Congress can give you additional background.

Money 3On Tuesday, published an opinion piece titled “Invest in Scientific Research to Drive Innovation,” written by Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  In the piece, the Senator notes the invaluable role basic science research plays for our country and calls for an increase in the federal government’s research and development investment to 1% of the country’s GDP, as well as policies to ensure that students have access to top STEM education.

So the question is – what does the latest bill mean for Earth and space science and how does it stack up against Senator Peters’ challenge? Here’s the breakdown:


Funding for Agencies (in millions of dollars)

Program FY15 Enacted FY16 President’s Request FY16 House FY16 Senate FY16 Omnibus $ change from FY15 to FY16 Omnibus  

% change from FY15 to FY16 Omnibus


NSF Overall 7,344 7,724 7,400 7,344 7,463 119 + 1.62 %
NASA Overall 18,010 18,529 18,500 18,290 19, 285 1,275 + 7.08 %
NOAA Overall 5,441 5,983 5,238 5,382 5,766 325 + 5.97 %
USGS Overall 1,045 1,195 1,045 1,059 1,062 17 + 1.63 %
DOE Overall 27,402 29,924 29,012 29,429 29, 717 2,315 + 8.45 %


National Science Foundation:

The appropriations bill allocates $7.5 billion to NSF, an increase of almost $120 million and 1.62 % over the FY15 enacted level. This funding includes $6.03 billion for NSF’s research and development facilities, and $880 million for NSF’s education and training programs.  On an importantly related note, the bill does not include any restrictions to geosciences funding, which was a serious rider concern.


NASA is funded at $19.3 billion in the bill, an increase of $1.3 billion above the FY15 enacted level to advance America’s leadership in space and science. This includes $1.9 billion for Earth Science and includes $1.6 billion for Planetary Science. This is about an 8% bump for both sections, which allows for sustained exploration of both space and our own planet.


The legislation designates $5.8 billion for NOAA, which is an increase of $325 million, or 6%, in comparison to the FY15 enacted level. This includes funding for the National Weather Service to provide critical weather information to the public, and investments in new and existing weather satellites that are essential to maintain and improve weather forecasts.


$1.1 billion was allocated to USGS, an increase of $20 million which keeps funding at about the same level. This puts the USGS at a 1.63% increase in funding from FY15 to the FY16 omnibus.


Overall, DOE saw an 8.45% funding increase to an overall $29.7 billion. About 20% of that funding, or $5.4 billion, will be dedicated to the Office of Science.  Beyond the wide network of national laboratories and state of the art science user facilities, the DOE Office of Science supports young researchers and students nationwide – allowing the U.S. to stay competitive in global innovation.


Throughout the formation of the bill, there loomed the possibility of policy riders. These types of provisions do not necessarily have specific funding numbers attached to them, but rather place policy limitations on issues like climate change and environmental regulations.

Here’s the good news: the omnibus appropriations bill currently includes no new harmful policy riders.  Previous concerns included cuts to NSF’s geosciences research, restrictions on participation in climate change activities, and limitations on NOAA’s ocean research – all of which were cut from the 2016 omnibus. Win! And that’s not to say all riders are bad. Here are just a few examples:

Removed Riders:030523

  • NSF directorate level funding limits were cut out of the final appropriations bill.
  • Green Climate Fund Language was removed from the bill that would have explicitly prevented the Administration from contributing to the Green Climate Fund, a resource developed by the United Nations to aid poor countries in dealing with climate change. The bill doesn’t directly allocate any money to the fund, but rather does not stop the Administration from using money from other accounts to support it.

Added Riders:

  • Conference Travel — The spending bill now includes language that can open the door for the Administration to lift some restrictions on government scientists seeking to travel to science conferences. These meetings play a critical role in the scientific process.
  • National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund — Another added rider was the “National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund.” The fund, introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, is dedicated to oceans restoration and research.

A Step in the Right Direction

Overall, this bill is a turning point in what is a long road to restore U.S. leadership in science. With a recent history of being underfunded, support for the geosciences is something to celebrate – but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. Encouraging bipartisan efforts towards supporting critical geoscience agencies and organizations requires constant attention and a diligent eye.

Keep in mind, the House and Senate must still vote on the bill,  and then there’s that pesky report language, which can further dictate how agencies must allocate their dollars. So while it’s great news that the current numbers support science, it’s critical to keep a watchful eye as legislation is voted on and finalized. In the meantime, we’ll be tracking the progress of the bill and keep you posted.