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U.S. avoids shutdown, but prospects for boosting science funding remain dim

Read the full article in Science.

U.S. scientists bracing for a government shutdown that would have furloughed federal researchers and disrupted grantmaking are relieved that Congress averted a closure over the weekend with a temporary spending agreement. But Congress is still a long way from approving 2024 spending bills for research agencies. And scientists are likely to be disappointed with many of the final numbers.

The so-called continuing resolution (CR) passed overwhelmingly on 30 September by both chambers allows agencies to operate until 17 November with spending at current levels. That means science agencies can continue to accept and review grant applications and carry out routine business, although they are forbidden from starting any projects or reshuffling funds.

If legislators can’t agree on a 2024 spending plan by mid-November, however, they will need to pass another CR to avoid a shutdown. And many observers are betting that a continued lack of consensus will trigger another legislative showdown—and possible shutdown—in the days before the holiday season.

For scientists, the bad news is that the chances are dwindling that research agencies will see any of the healthy budget increases that President Joe Biden has requested for the 2024 fiscal year that began on 1 October. And those agencies could fare much worse by the time the dust settles.

One reason is that a late May agreement to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt obligations also holds all nondefense discretionary spending—which includes civilian research—at this year’s levels rather than the 7% increase Biden has proposed. Defense spending would grow by 3%, the increment Biden has requested.

But even that hard-fought compromise between Biden and House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–CA) is in serious trouble. Prodded by a group of conservative Republican lawmakers, the House last week passed four spending bills that would cut the budgets of several civilian agencies below 2022 levels. None covers such key research agencies as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation. But the House is expected to approve similarly sharp cuts for those agencies in coming weeks.

“I would not be surprised to see a bill come to the House floor that contains deep cuts to NIH,” says Ellie Dehoney of Research!America, which advocates for biomedical research.

Those low numbers won’t be the final word. The Senate has begun to advance its own versions of the 12 spending bills covering all government activities; they would give small increases to several research agencies. Those boosts are possible because the Senate is assuming overall spending levels that are much higher than those supported by the House. The two chambers—and the White House—will need to find middle ground before any of the appropriations bills can be passed and signed into law.

Striking a compromise, however, will be complicated by McCarthy’s tenuous grip on his position as speaker of the House, where Republicans hold a slim majority. Many of the same group of conservative legislators who supported a shutdown and seek deep budget cuts also want to oust McCarthy as speaker. That leadership drama could complicate progress on spending bills.

“Will McCarthy stick to his agreement with Biden or … push for additional cuts?” asks one science lobbyist who requested anonymity. “I think the answer will depend on his strategy for holding onto his job.”

In the midst of all the uncertainty, science advocates hail the CR as an example of what can happen when congressional Democrats and Republicans focus on getting something done rather than scoring political points. For example, McCarthy dropped proposed language on such hot-button issues as abortion and immigration to come up with a bill that Democrats would support. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) reluctantly removed an additional $6 billion to support Ukraine’s military to accommodate some Republicans. The final votes on the “clean” CR—335 to 91 in the House and 88 to nine in the Senate—reflect a willingness to call a truce to the fierce partisanship, says Matt Hourihan of the Federation of American Scientists.

“As a bipartisan measure, the CR further demonstrates that compromise is not only possible, but necessary,” Hourihan says. “There’s a long road ahead, but I think it sets a good precedent that legislators can build on.”

One early test could come if Congress tries to pass a so-called supplemental spending bill that provides support to Ukraine and is separate from the 12 annual spending bills. Pundits predict that winning House support for a supplemental could involve bundling the Ukraine money with more funds for border security and restrictions on immigration. Given the consensus on freezing civilian spending, however, a successful supplemental could make it even harder for legislators to boost research budgets. It could also complicate efforts to pass any additional CRs.

Such uncertainty makes it difficult to predict when Congress might ultimately agree on a 2024 budget. “I think the next 45 days are going to be very fluid,” Dehoney says. “So I’d be wary of anybody offering up any predictions.”