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Science funding spared under congressional budget deal, but more battles ahead

The budget includes funding for a lander mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, which was eliminated in a draft budget by the Trump administration but has fans on Capitol Hill. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute)
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The lights will stay on in the federal government, and also in the countless laboratories and universities that depend on federal funding for scientific and medical research. That's one upshot of the bipartisan budget deal congressional negotiators reached late Sunday.

The bill, clocking in at more than 1,600 pages, is likely to pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law by President Trump this week. It covers funding through September.

This is welcome news for the research community, which had been shocked and dismayed by Trump's March 16 budget blueprint for fiscal 2018. What's unclear is whether the 2017 budget deal represents a full-throated repudiation of Trump's goals, or is just an act of political expediency — a rare bipartisan compromise designed to avoid an imminent government shutdown.

Trump's “skinny budget” for 2018 calls for massive cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. A more detailed 2018 budget from Trump's Office of Management and Budget is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

But in the meantime, Congress hadn't even passed a 2017 budget — something it was supposed to do last year. The government has been operating on temporary spending measures based on the 2016 budget. The administration in late March sent to the Hill some suggestions for reductions to the fiscal 2017 budget. Among the suggestions: Cut $300 million from four programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), $50 million from the NASA science office, and $350 million from the National Science Foundation.

Trump's budget calls for seismic disruption in federally funded research

Science and medical research, however, have long received bipartisan support, and that political reality has not changed under the Trump administration.

Here are the Republican and Democratic wins in the $1 trillion funding package. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/The Washington Post)

The new budget deal calls for an additional $2 billion for NIH, including $300 million for the cancer “moonshot” initiative — the 21st Century Cures Act — championed by former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. The funding for the moonshot drew praise from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The budget deal also includes $175 million more for the National Cancer Institute.

The new bill includes a small cut to the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fully funded, however, are programs designed to prepare for pandemics or bioterrorism attacks. The CDC will have $35 million in emergency funding to deal with the lead crisis in Flint, Mich. The effort to combat the Zika virus will be allotted $394 million.

The Office of Adolescent Health’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program received $101 million, on par with 2016 funding. A Health and Human Services Department program to promote abstinence education for teenagers, now renamed “sexual risk avoidance” in the new budget, increased its 2016 funding by 50 percent, to $15 million. Most federal money for sex education supports comprehensive programs, which also teach the use of contraception. Abstinence-only programs have faded in popularity as more research suggests it does not work to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and may actually worsen those problems. But advocates say more research is needed and have been lobbying Congress for more funding for their programs.

The Energy Department's Office of Science will get a $42 million funding increase instead of the $900 million cut Trump called for in his budget blueprint. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) would get a modest increase, to $306 million, for 2017, which is good news for an agency marked for elimination by Trump and his budget team.

The National Park Service will get a boost of $81 million over the 2016 level — money that can be used for long-needed repairs to park infrastructure nationwide.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will receive $11 million more than last year. Some of that money will be used to boost funding for an effort to remove plants and animals from the endangered species list — a priority of conservatives. The bill maintains a one-year delay on any further Endangered Species Act status “reviews, determinations, and rulemakings” for the greater sage-grouse, according to the summary provided by the House Appropriations Committee.

The U.S. Geological Survey will receive an additional $23 million. Nearly half of the USGS money is marked for an earthquake early-warning system.

Trump had called for a 31 percent cut to EPA's budget for 2018, but the 2017 deal shows a 1 percent cut. The budget plan, as written by lawmakers, does carry with it some demands and restrictions. For example, EPA is prohibited from changing Clean Water Act exemptions for agriculture. It can't regulate lead in ammunition and fishing tackle that has led to eagle deaths and the poisoning of many other species.

NASA will get an increase of $368 million, putting the agency within shouting distance of $20 billion overall for 2017.

“This is a wonderful budget for NASA. This is higher than either the Senate or the House proposed individually,” said Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society. The additional money includes funding for two missions to Europa, the intriguing moon of Jupiter. The first would be an orbiter, and the second a lander. Europa is believed to have a subsurface ocean, and a lander would include life-detection instruments. The Trump budget outline in March nixed money for the Europa lander, but such a mission has champions on the Hill.

Brady Dennis, Lisa Rein, Sandhya Somashekhar and Lena Sun contributed to this report.

Further Reading:

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