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Biden’s 2023 budget request for science aims high—again

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President Joe Biden didn’t forget research today, when he submitted to Congress a 2023 budget request that calls for a 9.5% increase in domestic discretionary spending. Biden is asking for a 19% increase at the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 9.6% boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 4.5% more for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and a 5% hike for NASA’s science missions.

But as always when a president submits his annual budget, the hard part will be getting Congress to go along. That process usually runs past the 1 October start of the fiscal year, leading to a temporary freeze on spending at current levels. But with midterm elections in November that could shift control of one or both chambers from Democrats to Republicans, a final agreement could easily be delayed until after the new year.

Even with his party now in control, Biden’s first budget blueprint for science was seriously downsized when Congress passed a final 2022 spending bill earlier this month. For example, legislators shrank Biden’s proposed budget for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) from $6.5 billion to $1 billion, instead giving NIH’s existing institutes a boost of 5%. But ARPA-H remains a presidential favorite, with Biden requesting a total of $5 billion for it in 2023.

Likewise, the omnibus bill whittled his proposed 2022 increase for NSF from 20% to 4% and eliminated a $500 million request for a new technology directorate that would ramp up NSF’s applied research efforts. But Biden has come back with a similarly sized request for 2023, including a proposal to launch 10 megacenters to boost regional innovation.

Here are highlights from the budgets of three key agencies.

NIH: The biomedical research agency’s budget would rise $4.3 billion in 2023, to $49 billion. But nearly all the new funding would go to ARPA-H, which is intended to fund high-risk, cutting-edge research. The budgets for most of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers would remain flat compared to 2022.

“We’re disappointed,” says Eleanor Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy for Research!America. A $300-million increase to NIH’s base budget, Dehoney says, “simply isn’t enough to meet the agency’s mission.” Such a tiny boost won’t allow the agency to keep pace with biomedical inflation, adds Jennifer Zeitzer, public affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Although the president’s budget places ARPA-H at NIH, its ultimate location is still unclear. Many advocates have urged it be independent of NIH, and last month’s omnibus bill created it as a standalone agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But the bill gave HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra 30 days to decide whether to move it to NIH.

Becerra has not announced his decision. But at a press briefing today, Becerra said, “If we’re fortunate to get those [additional] $4 billion, I guarantee you, whatever shape, wherever it is, we intend to fly.”

Among a few areas tagged for increases is NIH’s Office of Nutrition Research. Its budget would roughly double, to $195 million. NIH’s health disparities program would rise by $350 million, a 9% increase. Biden has also requested $2 million for a Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Research. It would build on a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report recommending federal agencies do a better job of collecting these data.

NIH would also receive $12.1 billion over 5 years as part of an HHS plan to improve pandemic preparedness using “mandatory” funds that do not require annual approval from Congress. The money would fund research on vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics to address about 20 high-priority viruses. It would also fund biosafety and biosecurity measures, biocontainment labs, and clinical trial infrastructure.

NSF: Biden’s budget request for NSF sends a clear message to Congress: He believes in the agency. The $10.5 billion he has proposed for 2023 is consistent with aspirational spending levels in two pending bills intended to help to the United States out-compete China, which the president has urged Congress to pass after reconciling their differences. The legislation, which Biden has dubbed the Bipartisan Innovation Act in hopes of speeding its adoption, would more than double NSF’s budget over 5 years and make the new technology directorate the largest of NSF’s seven existing research and education directorates.

His 2023 request also revives NSF’s plan to spend $200 million on 10 regional innovation engines. Twice the size of NSF’s current bevy of engineering and science centers, the new centers are designed not just to advance emerging technologies but also to address the workforce and economic needs of various regions of the country. This year’s spending bill encourages NSF to start one center, from existing funds, but NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says achieving the president’s vision will require “tens of millions of dollars” invested in each of several centers.

Biden’s new budget boosts spending for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at all levels. Notably, it would grow by more than one-third the annual size of NSF’s flagship graduate training program, increasing the number of new graduate research fellowships (GRFs) from 2000 to 2750. It would also raise annual stipends for the 3-year GRFs from $34,000 to $37,000.

In line with that heightened emphasis on training, the budget request rebrands NSF’s current education and human resources directorate as the Directorate for STEM education and converts one its components, on human resources development, into the Division of Equity for Excellence in STEM.

DOE science: The administration’s focus on climate shaped its request for the Office of Science, with the biological and environment research (BER) program receiving the biggest increase, a 10.9% boost, to $904 million. BER funds DOE’s work on climate modeling and simulations.

The rest of the 4.5% overall increase, to $7.8 billion, would be spread more or less evenly across the other five major research programs. Advanced scientific computing research, which funds DOE’s supercomputers, would receive a 3.3% hike, to $1.069 billion. Basic energy sciences—which includes chemistry, condensed matter physics, and materials sciences and which runs DOE’s big x-ray and neutron sources—would get a 4.9% increase, to $2.42 billion. High energy physics would see its budget climb 4.1% to $1.122 billion.

Nuclear physics would receive 1.5% more, to $739 million. The budget for fusion energy sciences would inch up 1.4% to $723 million. However, Congress already gave those two programs generous biggest budget increases in the 2022 spending bill.

Biden has requested a 56% increase for DOE’s Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), to $700 million, in line with the administration’s emphasis on developing clean energy technologies. The agency aims to rapidly turn basic research into prototype technologies that the private sector might take over.

The request says ARPA-E will also expand its remit “to invest in climate-related innovations necessary to achieve net zero climate-inducing emissions by 2050.” The Biden administration had wanted to create a separate entity, called Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate, to advance that goal. But in the 2022 omnibus, Congress directed DOE to give the task to ARPA-E.