Facing a potential re-election battle next year, President Joe Biden laid out broad funding priorities for the US government on 9 March. New research funds proposed in his budget for 2024 would be invested in a variety of programmes with the aim of achieving goals in scientific innovation, domestic manufacturing, and clean energy.
Even though many federal science agencies didn’t receive firm funding commitments from Biden’s budget, there were still some clear winners. See ‘Biden’s budget requests for science in 2024’ for specifics, but in general, the budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) would increase by nearly 19% and the budget for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (a major investor in the physical sciences) would increase by nearly 9%.
In the upcoming fiscal year 2024, which begins on October 1, Congress, with a House of Representatives under Republican control and a Senate under Democratic control, will determine the total amount of funding available to the various federal agencies. Former National Science Foundation director and current senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, Texas, Neal Lane, predicts a difficult budget negotiation. However, he argues that this budget, and in particular the request for the NSF, demonstrates that Biden, a Democrat, is dedicated to scientific and technological innovation in order to keep the United States competitive with China and other Asian countries.
An impending fiscal crisis in the United States is adding fuel to the fire in the coming months. If the United States wants to avoid defaulting on its debts, Congress will need to either raise or lift a limit on the national debt. However, Republicans are threatening to block any effort to raise the debt limit unless it is accompanied by significant spending cuts.
“We will see a battle over funding cuts, not just for research and development, but for the budget overall,” says Joanne Carney, chief government-relations officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. She says that the US scientific community has a responsibility to argue for continued investments in R&D&I, citing recent advances in fusion energy and the creation of COVID-19 vaccines.
Intense Chinese competition
The Obama administration wants to keep the United States competitive with China, and that goal is reflected in many of Biden’s budget requests. They build on important legislation passed by Congress last year, known as the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorised US$280 billion to be doled out for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, and for research in the applied sciences, at agencies such as the NSF.
Under Biden’s plan, the NSF, which funds about one-quarter of US academic research, would receive 18.6% more than it did last year, boosting its budget to $11.3 billion. That sum includes $1.8 billion for initiatives to increase the size and diversity of the scientific workforce and $2 billion for R&D in cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing.
It also includes $1.2 billion for the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, established in March 2022 to help bring innovations from the laboratory to the market. Legislators are hoping that a division of the NSF, which is best known as a funder of fundamental research, will match China’s massive investment in R&D.
If you look at Biden’s proposed budget, you can see that the United States is prepared to take on the technological challenges posed by China and other countries, as argued by Lane. “This is a very significant statement on the part of the administration that we really are serious, that we recognise that we’re in a race.”
An additional $163 million, or 77%, would be allocated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, bringing the total budget to $375 million. This money would be used to increase funding for NIST’s research into industrial technology and to grow the institute’s nationwide network of manufacturing centres. And the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a public-private partnership that helps small manufacturers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, would get a 58% funding boost, bringing its total to $277 million.
In the field of human space exploration — another area in which the United States is trying to stay ahead of China — NASA would receive $8.1 billion for its Artemis programme, which is developing a line of rockets and spaceships to take astronauts back to the surface of the Moon. A $500 million increase over last year’s funding level would represent a 6.6% increase if approved. It is NASA’s goal to land humans on the Moon as soon as 2025, and the agency successfully completed its first Artemis mission, an unmanned test flight, in November.
Bolstering US health
Biden’s proposed budget allocates significant resources to preserving US competitiveness; however, it also seeks to use the lessons learned from the recent COVID-19 pandemic to better prepare the country for future epidemics.
In light of the public’s criticism of the CDC’s handling of the pandemic, the organization’s top brass has pledged to make fundamental changes to the agency’s organisational structure and operational procedures. Biden requested $11.6 billion for the agency, an increase of $2.4 billion, or 26%, from 2023 — reflecting concerns over the US public-health system. The American Public Health Association’s Washington, DC, executive director, Georges Benjamin, lauds the increase as a positive first step. “The public-health system has been so underfunded for so long that the truth of the matter is it’s going to take a fair amount of money to make that right, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he says.
Planned spending on pandemic preparedness is $20 billion over five years. The bulk of these funds would go to the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response, the government department in charge of responding to and recovering from public-health crises and keeping a ready supply of medications and vaccines.
If Biden’s request is approved, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, could receive $2.7 billion. However, without this amendment, the NIH’s budget would be $48.6 billion, an increase of only about 1.9% from 2023. The NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world. “I’m quite disappointed in the NIH increase,” says Ellie Dehoney, the vice-president of policy and advocacy at Research!America, an organisation in Arlington, Virginia, that advocates for health research. She adds that this amount is insufficient for the agency to invest in the basic research for which it is renowned.
Even ARPA-H, an independent agency in the NIH that was founded last year and will invest in high-risk, high-reward life-sciences research, would see a bigger absolute increase — $1 billion — than the NIH under Biden’s plan. Given that ARPA-H is just getting started, that, according to Dehoney, is a huge risk.
Protecting Earth and its people
Biden’s budget would invest about $16.5 billion for climate science and energy innovation across multiple agencies, building on previous legislation that provides more than half a trillion dollars for climate and energy over the coming decade. Another $4 billion would go towards “game-changing” technologies that could help to lower greenhouse-gas emissions in areas such as construction, aviation, manufacturing and fusion energy. Much of that money would flow through the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which would see its budget increase to $8.8 billion, including a record $1 billion investment in fusion programmes.
In addition, the budget would allocate $24 billion to help communities in the United States prepare for the growing impacts of climate change, and another $7 billion to help communities that rely on oil, gas, and coal extraction make the switch to clean energy.
The Environmental Protection Agency would see its budget increase by around 19%, to $12.1 billion. That includes $5 billion for climate programmes (an increase of nearly 18%), as well as $1.8 billion for environmental-justice programmes that are intended to benefit disadvantaged communities.
Overall, Biden’s proposed budget reflects the priorities of the Democratic party and emphasises applied science that can help to solve national and global challenges, says Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who tracks federal science-policy issues. He adds that the bigger question is whether or not it will get lost in the argument between Republicans and Democrats over the budget deficit.