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Web Extra Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Budget blues and bonuses

In his State of the Union Address, President Bush gave the public a sneak-peak at his funding priorities for fiscal year 2007 (FY2007) in the sciences: pushing ahead with new diversified energy resources and staying competitive in math and science globally. His budget roll-out yesterday reflected those priorities, with energy and resource issues getting a funding boost, while other earth science issues took a back seat to higher priority national items.

In a nutshell

Speaking to reporters and colleagues yesterday in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton summed up President Bush's proposed FY2007 budget with three priorities: the war on terror, homeland defense and strengthening the economy. Indeed, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will garner an estimated $50 billion in 2007, of the $2.77 trillion proposed budget, according to The New York Times. As usual, the earth sciences received a mix bag of funding.

Patrick Leahy, the acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is "pleased with this budget, even if there are some challenges," he told a gathering of USGS stakeholders after the budget rollout on Monday, challenges that "can't be sugarcoated." A total allotment of $944.7 million for USGS is $1.2 million more than the actual budget granted the agency in 2005, but $20 million less than Congress appropriated for the 2006 budget.

Leahy highlighted $2.2 million requested for a hazards initiative pilot program in Southern California, which will combine landslide and earthquake monitoring and forecasting, as well as other hazards activities. Leahy said he was also particularly pleased to see earmarks to beef up programs for detection of avian influenza, in the biological services of USGS — even though other portions of that service are facing cuts, among other decreases in funding that were part of what Leahy called "changing priorities."

For the first time in two years, the president's budget called for a $15 million increase for so-called uncontrolled costs, including salaries, which will make up 75 percent of the shortfall that has plagued USGS. Still, cutbacks are in store, including for the minerals section, which is slated to lose more than 190 positions of the more than 300 full-time employees to be cut from USGS, as stated in the FY2007 budget. Mineral commodities tracking and other services, which in the past have been evaluated as important government functions by Congress, will lose most in the president's request.

Outside of USGS, other agencies' budgets reflected Bush's science priorities. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) came out alright, with the president's request of $23.6 billion for FY2007 almost exactly matching what Congress appropriated in 2006. The programmatic percentages have changed only slightly as well, with a little more going toward science and security and a little less going toward energy and environmental programs.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds basic research across the sciences, fared well too, consistent with the president's desire to keep the United States competitive in science and technology on a global scale. The NSF budget as a whole received a relatively large funding increase in the FY2007 budget request, for a total of $6.02 billion, or a 7.9 percent increase in funding over the 2006 approved budget. Compared to the 2.4 percent increase for 2006, this step takes the administration closer to its charge to double NSF funding over the next decade.

Part of the budget increase will encourage innovation, said Arden Bement, director of NSF, by "bolstering" K-12 education and increasing funding for graduate-level fellowships by 10 percent. NSF "clearly need[s] to do more to foster innovation," Bement says.

Other agencies did not fare as well. For NASA, the administration requested a 3.2 percent increase over FY2006 for a total request of $16.8 billion, with the agency's science budget receiving a 1.5 percent increase for FY2007 from the previous year's granted budget — modest growth compared to years past. And the National Ocean Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Office of Oceanic & Atmospheric Research, all within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), had proposed budget lines significantly less than their enacted budgets in 2006. NOAA's National Weather Service, however, would receive more in the administration's requested budget, at a boost of more than $35,000.

Renewable resources, alternative energy shifts

As part of Bush's desire to see America kick its oil addiction, as he labeled it in his State of the Union Address, his proposed Advanced Energy Initiative funds development of renewable and alternative sources of energy. The Advanced Energy Initiative will be funded through several offices, at a total request of $2.7 billion. Much of that money will go to the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which saw an overall 0.2 percent increase over FY2006 appropriations), to fund research on hydrogen technologies (up 25.8 percent to $114 million), biomass technologies for fuels (up 65 percent to $150 million), solar power technologies (up 78.5 percent to $148 million), wind power (up 12.8 percent to $44 million) and advanced vehicle technologies (down 8.8 percent to $166 million). The DOE's geothermal and hydropower renewable energy programs have been cut entirely.

Other programs within USGS, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), are set to receive a cash influx for activities required to comply with the Energy Act of 2005 (for example, for resources assessments). To "accelerate" the search for less traditional energy sources, funding increases went to exploring oil shales in the West (Colorado, Utah and Wyoming), and the president asked for increased funding for methane hydrates, for studies and further modeling by USGS, MMS and BLM. MMS also will increase its focus on alternative energy options, such as offshore wind farms.

Older resources with newer technologies are also getting renewed interest within DOE: Clean-coal technologies saw a transfer of funds from one program to another, but overall an increase in funding, as per the president's Coal Research Initiative. Nuclear energy also saw a big boost in the form of a new program called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, designed to simultaneously increase nuclear energy production and also decrease threats from nuclear materials proliferation. At $632.7 million, the budget request for the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology is 18 percent higher than last year's appropriation. The president also requested increased funding for Yucca Mountain, the as-yet-unapproved nuclear waste repository that DOE is building in Nevada.

President Bush also requested a 23 percent reduction in funding for the Office of Fossil Energy, which includes both a reappropriation of monies and a complete cut of the $61 million program to support energy companies' exploration for oil and gas. However, funding requests for oil and gas exploration are a reminder that Congress still controls a large part of the budget process: The president did not request such funding last year, and Congress funded it anyway.

Congress also decided last year that oil and gas in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would remain off limits. Nevertheless, revenues from as-yet unopened oil and gas leases will be a large future money source in the proposed budget for the Department of the Interior. Opening ANWR remains an important issue, Norton said, as "the need for energy continues to exist."

Another significant source of revenue — royalty payments required from oil and gas companies to the government — has been under scrutiny lately. When questioned about recent reports regarding shortfalls in such royalty payments, Norton said that "there are no significant problems," and that "we have improved the way in which we do our audits."

Other basic research

Funding for the geosciences under NSF saw a 6 percent increase for FY2007, for a total of $744.85 million. The new budget request provides some "breathing space," said Margaret Leinen, the NSF assistant director for geosciences, in a discussion following yesterday's NSF budget presentation.

The program EarthScope, which studies North American tectonics, received $27.4 million to complete construction of its seismic networks, among other costs. Also, the requested budget allocates $309 million over six years to initiate the building of a planned network of seafloor observatories off the Pacific Coast, of which NEPTUNE, offshore of the state of Washington, is a preliminary installation.

Funding for water and stream-gaging, which typically have been at risk in the past few budget cycles, also now is seeing an upside in the administration's proposed budget for FY2007. An increase of $2.3 million for stream-gage programs across the nation means the rejuvenation of about 30 of more than 120 such gages that were shut down in the past year due to funding issues. That program started with 1-to-1 funds matching between state and partner agencies and the federal government, but its funding ratio has slipped to 2-to-1, magnifying the loss of funding for individual installations. The proposed $2.3 million increase "is a step in the right direction," says Bob Hirsch, the head of the USGS Water Division. USGS will "use this to really help stabilize the network," which has provided long-term streamflow data across the country for more than a century in some cases.

The Water 2025 initiative was slated for $15 million, $10 million more than the previous year's budget, for dealing with water crises in the West and elsewhere.

Space slump

The space sciences saw major expected cuts, as well as small unexpected benefits.

For NASA, FY2007 budget requests remained aligned with the Vision for Space Exploration — the Bush administration's priority to retire the space shuttle, build a new crew transportation vehicle and return to the moon. But for NASA to retire the space shuttle and prepare the new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), funding for International Space Station research will be cut. "The greatest management challenge" faced by NASA will be in the transition from retiring the shuttle to implementing the CEV, but funding is "sufficient" to make that happen as soon as 2010 and no later than 2014, said Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, in a news conference Monday. "One plain fact is NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like us to do," Griffin said.

Closer to Earth, funding will increase for Landsat 8, the next generation of the land-observing satellite, which has been "of concern because of its age and condition of the satellites," Leahy of USGS says. With this year's $16 million increase to USGS' Landsat budget, NASA and USGS will work together to finish planning an independent land-observing satellite, projected to launch in 2011.

Naomi Lubick, Kathryn Hansen and Megan Sever

Office of Management and Budget
NASA budget information
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's budget statement
NOAA budget summary
Department of the Interior budget summary
Department of Energy budget summary
The Advanced Energy Initiative
National Science Foundation (no 2007 budget info online)
State of the Union Address

"Bush addresses alternative energy," Geotimes Web Extra, Feb. 3, 2006

Past budget coverage:

"An austere budget for 2006," Geotimes Web Extra, Feb. 9, 2005
"Homeland security tops Bush budget, again," Geotimes Web Extra, Feb. 4, 2004
"Security, defense top Bush budget," Geotimes Web Extra, Feb. 4, 2003

For more past stories about science funding, visit the Geotimes Web Extra Archive.

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