President Biden’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2024 is receiving a mixed response from the scientific and academic research communities. The White House’s new request would provide the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a marginal, sub-inflationary increase of less than 2%, and it would offer about the same for government-funded basic research. But other agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) would fare much better.

‘NIH won’t be able to sustain funding scientific research,’ warns the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s director of public affairs, Sarina Neote. ‘This means the agency will be forced to leave good science on the table; this leads to fewer medical advances, breakthrough studies, fewer scientists trained and overall a negative impact on the research ecosystem,’ she tells Chemistry World.

Neote points out that the Biden administration is proposing $48 billion (£40 billion) for the NIH’s base budget, excluding funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and a supplementary $2.5 billion in funding for pandemic preparedness. ‘The total proposed budget for NIH is $51.1 billion but the base budget would only increase by 1.7%. If that number doesn’t increase it would be damaging for scientific research across the country,’ she adds.

Jennifer Zeitzer, a spokesperson for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, is also concerned that funding for basic research would only increase by about 2%. The biomedical research inflation index is around 3%, so if Congress approves the Biden request as is then the NIH is ‘going to have some tough decisions to make about how to fund research in [fiscal year] 2024 and will almost certainly have less capacity to support research funding, especially after the generous increases Congress has provided over the last three to five years,’ Zeitzer cautions.

Joanne Padrón Carney, chief government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agrees that the basic research budget Biden is proposing is disappointing, especially considering inflation, but she emphasises that the administration’s request does make significant investments in certain priority areas, including the NSF.

The NSF is set to receive $11.3 billion, a hefty boost over current levels. The White House places the proposed NSF increase at roughly 18%, but some science groups estimate it to be closer to 14%. In particular, the proposal includes $1.2 billion for a new NSF department to help accelerate and translate scientific research into innovations, industries and jobs.

Just a starting point

The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science would see a rise of 8.6%, and the proposal specifically supports funding in cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, microelectronics, and isotope production at the national laboratories and universities.

At the same time, within the president’s request for the NIH, there is an increase of $1 billion for ARPA-H, for a total of $2.5 billion. This agency was only created last year to drive innovative health research.

At the NIH, the administration’s budget also would designate $7.8 billion for activities at the agency’s National Cancer Institute related to the Cancer Moonshot. That initiative, originally launched by the Obama administration seven years ago and led by then vice president Biden, aims to reduce the cancer death rate in the US by at least 50% over the next 25 years.

However, Zeitner warns that most budgets are dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill regardless of the political party that occupies the White House. ‘The important point to remember about the president’s budget request is that it is the start of conversations about the budget, not the end,’ she notes. It is Congress that will ultimately decide how much funding to allocate to research agencies.

‘We remain hopeful that Congress will continue the bipartisan support for the federal research agencies, but I think overall it is going to be a difficult year for the regular appropriations process,’ says the American Council on Education’s assistant vice president and chief of staff for government relations Sarah Spreitzer, referencing the larger negotiations on overall government spending currently underway between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

With the Republicans in charge of the House, and Democrats in control of the Senate, there is an extreme amount of partisanship that could complicate and delay the measure from being signed into law.

There are also concerns about whether congressional agreement will even be reached on the amount of money to put towards non-defence discretionary spending, which includes funding for research agencies. In many instances, Biden’s budget requests for these agencies in 2024 likely represent ‘the highwater watermark’, Spreitzer suggests.

But for the most part, science agencies are not seen in a partisan light. ‘I think members of Congress understand the importance of our US institutions of higher education doing research and development to address national challenges,’ Spreitzer states. But she and others note that the arguments on Capitol Hill come in the context of Republicans’ desire to cut government spending.