Congressional Science Spending Largely Untouched

Federal spending bill lets the air out of protestor’s tires

For several weeks, we have been inundated with media reports about thousands of protesters publicly opposing what they feared was the end of science in the United States, and possibly the world.

The March for Science website described how an “unprecedented coalition” gathered together on April 22 – Earth Day – in over 600 separate marches to “defend the role of science in policy and society.”

The Peoples Climate March, held on May 1, said that “more than 300,000 in Washington, D.C. and across the country” banded together to move away from “a cruel, polluted and divided country, and towards a clean energy economy that works for everyone.”

Much of the motivation driving the two widely covered marches was to respond to Trump administration actions aimed at rolling back environmental regulations and questioning the potential long-term impacts of climate change. At the Washington, D.C. March for Science event, Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” charged elected officials worldwide with “deliberately ignoring and actively surpassing science.”

Few would question the intensity of the marcher’s feelings. But when the final congressional spending bill was rolled out on May 1, much of the frenzied wailing, brought on by proposed cuts to science- and climate-focused federal agencies, proved to be much ado about nothing.

In fact, despite widespread concerns about a proposed 31 percent budget cut and the removal of approximately 3,200 employees at the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA will only see a 1 percent budget cut and no staff losses.

There’s no question that the EPA could endure a much larger budget cut in 2017. As I recently asked a Bridge Magazine reporter, “Honestly, is there any government agency that can’t cut somewhere?” After all, the EPA actually classified a mere 1,069 out of its 16,205 employees as essential during the 2013 federal government shutdown. So asking department officials to struggle through with an $8.06 billion budget in 2017 — compared to the $8.2 billion they received in 2016 — is not imposing a serious hardship.

A few additional examples will show how science avoided any serious funding restrictions in this spending bill.

  • Initial fears about cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative were the focus of Michigan’s news in March. But the $300 million budget for this program was untouched. The president’s request for an immediate $50 million cut to GLRI funding was refused by Congress, which instead dedicated $50 million in spending to “support fishing, boating, hunting and stopping invasive species.” To help put a touch of perspective into this topic, the GLRI is one of those spending areas that people are loathe to consider reducing because water and its management is so important to the state. But the fear of questioning that funding is likely to also lead to a lack of serious oversight. Therefore, when I was seeking input from friends in Michigan’s environmental community on the potential cuts, I did hear grudging admissions that not every dollar in GLRI funding went exclusively to Great Lakes restoration projects. Michigan Capitol Confidential has highlighted a few examples of those projects that did not meet the stated goals of the GLRI. Additionally, when the Obama administration recommended almost $16 million in cuts to the spending program in fiscal year 2013, there was little if any outcry from these protest groups.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have small cuts to its budget. But of special interest to Michigan residents will be the $35 million in additional emergency funding for Flint.
  • NASA had a $368 million increase, moving it to almost $20 billion in total funding.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also fared well, with only a 1 percent cut to its now-$5.7 billion budget. The NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research – the office focused on climate studies – will actually see an increase from $462 million to $478 million.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey is targeted to have a $23 million bump. Much of that spending is expected to support earthquake preparedness work.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have an $11 million budget increase. A portion of that spending will be directly targeted toward removing plant and wildlife species from the endangered species list.
  • The National Park Service will receive an additional $81 million in 2017. Much of that money is expected to go toward infrastructure upgrades and repairs in the nation’s parks.
  • In contrast to Trump’s proposed $900 million reduction, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will see $42 million added to its spending.

After all the marching, chanting, and forecasts of doom, Congress was actually quite generous to science and climate research. In fact, this spending bill effectively let all the air out of all the tires on all the buses that were hired to ship worried protesters around the country.

Given the fact that elected officials across the political spectrum rushed out to take bipartisan credit for spending another $1.1 trillion in 2017, the only thing seriously at risk from this year’s omnibus spending bill is the American taxpayer.