Inside (the Beltway) Scoop: President Obama’s Budget Edition

On February 9, President Barack Obama released his fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget fleshing out the details of the proposals he outlined in his State of the Union address. Under the President’s proposal, overall funding for research and development (R&D) would rise to $152 billion, an increase of $6 billion (four percent) over enacted FY 2016 levels. Within the total R&D budget, $73 billion (a six percent increase over FY 2016) would be provided for “basic and applied research.” However, to arrive at these increases, President Obama’s request relies on controversial methodology.

In order to adhere to the revised FY 2017 discretionary spending level in the Bipartisan Budget Act passed in October 2015 ($1.07 trillion) and still provide increases for a variety of agencies and initiatives, the President proposes billions in new mandatory funding. The inclusion of mandatory dollars suggests that the revised 2017 budget cap does not provide enough money to support the administration’s priorities.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will accept more spending on the mandatory side of the budget, but the initial reaction is not encouraging. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) said in a press release, “There will be little appetite in Congress for mandatory spending that diminishes fiscal discipline and congressional oversight.”


Agency FY 2017

President’s Budget


(Compared to FY 2016)

National Institutes of Health $33.1 billion +$825 million


National Science Foundation $7.96 billion +$500.5 million


Department of Energy Office of Science $5.67 billion +$325 million


Veterans Administration Medical & Prosthetic Research $663.4 million +$32.7 million


Agriculture and Food Research Initiative


Agricultural Research Service

$700  million



$1.16 billion

+$350 million



+$17 million


National Institutes of Health

The President’s request of $33.1 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) represents an $825 million (2.5 percent) increase in funding above FY 2016. A summary of the proposed NIH budget notes that the agency will continue to focus on funding investigator-initiated Research Project Grants (RPGs). Although overall support for RPGs will increase under the President’s budget, NIH proposed to remove $1 billion in discretionary funding for the 27 individual institutes and centers (I/Cs) and replace that money with mandatory funds. The net effect of this change is that there is no increase in the budgets for the I/Cs. In addition, the success rate is projected to drop to 17.5 percent from 19.2 percent.

The agency estimates that the budget will support:

  • A total of 36,440 RPGs, an increase of 600 above the projected FY 2016 estimate
  • 9,946 new and competing RPGs, a decrease of 807 below FY 2016 projections
  • 24,608 non-competing RPGs, an increase of 1,241 above FY 2016.

The budget request for NIH highlights other areas the agency will focus on in FY 2017, including reducing administrative burden, implementing new guidelines to enhance rigor and reproducibility, and continuing to enforce policies mandating that all NIH-funded clinical trials submit results to Individual NIH institute and center summaries are also available on the NIH Budget Office website.

National Science Foundation

The President requested $7.964 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a $500.53 million (6.7 percent) increase over FY 2016 enacted levels. This total includes a new, one-year mandatory fund totaling $400 million, leaving approximately $7.56 billion for NSF in the discretionary portion of the budget.

According to the agency’s budget request, the mandatory fund: “. . .will support more scientists and engineers at the early stages of their careers—who bring particular expertise in data- and computationally-intensive activities—to quicken the pace of discovery and advance the leading edge of research and education.” The mandatory spending would fund highly-rated proposals that would otherwise be declined due to lack of funding and consequently boost the NSF-wide funding rate to 23 percent in FY 2017.

The specific budget allocations across NSF are outlined below:

  • Research and Related Activities: $6.43 billion (+6.5%)
  • Education and Human Resources: $953 million (+8.3%)
  • Major Research Equipment and Facilities: $193 million (-3.6%)
  • Agency Operations and Award Management: $373 million (+13%)
  • National Science Board: $4.38 million (+0.2%).

For the Directorate for the Biological Sciences (BIO), the President’s budget allocates $790.5 million, constituting a $46.35 million increase (6.2 percent) above FY 2016. Of this, a majority ($44.79 million) would come from the proposed mandatory fund. The full NSF budget request can be found on the NSF website. A summary brochure is also available.

Veterans Administration Medical and Prosthetic Research Program

The Veterans Administration (VA) research program would receive $663.4 million under the President’s budget proposal, an increase of $32.7 million (5.2 percent) over FY 2016. VA estimates that this funding level will support 2,234 research projects in FY 2017, a slight decrease from the current budget.

VA is also reprioritizing program spending to provide an additional $65 million to support the Million Veteran Program (MVP). Approximately $50 million of these funds will be used to conduct genomic sequencing on up to 100,000 veterans enrolled in MVP. The remaining $15 million will fund research on the impact of pharmacogenomic strategies for drug selection in up to 21,500 veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, pain and/or substance abuse.  Other studies will “evaluate the effectiveness of providing pharmacogenomic information to patients and providers for improving treatment.”

The complete VA budget request is available on the VA website.

Agriculture & Food Research Initiative and Agricultural Research Service

The FY 2017 budget for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) includes approximately $1.16 billion for Salaries and Expenses at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and $700 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). As with other parts of the President’s budget, funding for AFRI includes $325 million in mandatory funding to bring the program up to its full, authorized level. Research areas highlighted in the budget include:

  • Combating Antimicrobial Resistance (ARS: $22 million)
  • Avian Influenza and Foreign Animal Disease Research (ARS: $10 million)
  • Sustainable Bioenergy Research ($25 million).

A brief summary as well as the complete USDA budget can be found online.

Department of Energy Office of Science

The President’s budget includes $5.67 billion for the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE SC), a $325 million (or approximately 6 percent) increase over FY 2016 enacted levels. This budget includes a $100 million mandatory fund specifically for competitive grants targeted at university-based researchers. The overall DOE SC budget includes the following specific funding levels:

  • Advanced Scientific Computing: $663million (+6.8%)
  • Basic Energy Sciences: $1.94 billion (+4.7%)
  • Biological and Environmental Research: $662 million (+8.7%)
  • Science Laboratories Infrastructure: $130 million (+14.4%).

The full DOE SC budget request as well as a brief overview is available on the DOE website.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) issued a statement acknowledging the increases for research in the President’s 2017 budget request but expressing concern about its support for the broad range of investigator-initiated research.

“Scientific research is vital to addressing important national priorities, such as the development of tomorrow’s technologies and the treatment of complex, pervasive diseases,” said FASEB President, Parker B. Antin, PhD. “But innovation is difficult without investment. The most rapid way to reach our nation’s goals is through sustained, predictable increases in research funding,” he added.