Political Scene

Geosciences Again Look to Congress to Restore Cuts
David Applegate and Margaret A. Baker

Like a poorly organized track meet, the gun went off on the fiscal year 2004 appropriations process before the previous year’s legislation had even reached the home stretch. When the president unveiled his 2004 request in early February, all non-defense agencies were still being funded at 2002 levels nearly halfway through fiscal year 2003. Partisan battles continued to rage over the 11 remaining 2003 appropriations bills, which Congress ultimately folded into a single omnibus measure.

Those battles concluded on Feb. 20 when President Bush signed the 3,000-page omnibus bill. Now that the dust has settled, it is possible to make realistic comparisons between the president’s new request and the actual 2003 levels.

The comparison will seem familiar. For the last several years, the geoscience community has relied on Congress to put back what the administration proposed taking out of key geoscience agencies. The biggest proposed cuts would essentially eliminate petroleum research funded by the Department of Energy and severely curtail the mineral resource program at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Department of Energy: Similar to last year’s request, oil and natural gas programs face the most dramatic cuts proposed for research and development (R&D) at the Department of Energy. The president requested $15 million for oil R&D, down 65 percent from current funding. The budget would effectively eliminate all upstream exploration and production research, cutting that account to $2 million, down from $23 million this year. The cuts to natural gas R&D are less than those proposed last time but still represent a 43 percent cut from this year’s levels, down to $27 million. (This month’s Comment addresses the implications of these cuts and lays out a case for increasing the federal commitment in this area.)

U.S. Geological Survey: For the second year in a row, the Bush administration has sought increases for biological programs while cutting the other disciplines. Overall, the USGS fared better than in the president’s fiscal year 2003 request, but the administration’s proposed $896 million is still 2 percent less than Congress provided this year. The Mineral Resources Program faces one of the biggest cuts, a $9 million hit. Combined with cuts in the current year, the program is looking at a 25 percent reduction from fiscal year 2002 levels, which would eliminate a global mineral resource assessment currently underway as well as geochemical process studies on the effects of toxic materials associated with mineral deposits. Other programs facing reductions include geologic mapping, toxic substances hydrology, water resource research institutes and the National Map.

National Science Foundation: For the earth sciences, the real bright spot this year — as it was last year — is EarthScope. After several years of effort to bring it about, this initiative within the Major Research Equipment, Facilities and Construction account was funded at just under $30 million in fiscal year 2003, and the president has requested $45 million for 2004. The project is expected to cost $187 million over five years.

In last year’s request, the administration sought to transfer programs from NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and USGS into the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Geosciences Directorate, which funds basic research in the earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences. Congress refused to go along, instead providing a 12.3 percent increase to $685 million for the directorate’s own programs. In this year’s request, the administration has abandoned the transfers but is seeking only $3 million over what Congress has provided this year. Within that total, the Earth Sciences Division would receive $144 million.

Given strong bipartisan support in Congress for a doubling of NSF’s budget in the next five years, that flat funding is not likely to stand, but with the war and looming deficits, getting back on the doubling path will take a concerted external effort. For the programs in other agencies that face deep cuts, just getting back to the starting line will be challenge enough.

Applegate and Baker are with the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program, and Applegate is also editor of Geotimes. E-mail him at:

For more details on the president’s fiscal year 2004 request and final fiscal year 2003 appropriated levels for geoscience programs, visit the Government Affairs Program Web site.

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