Biden pursues giant boost for science spending

President Joe Biden released his first proposed budget for the United States on 9 April.Credit:…

President Joe Biden released his first proposed budget for the United States on 9 April.Credit: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post/Getty

US President Joe Biden unveiled his first proposed budget on 9 April, and it signaled strong support for research and development. The spending plan would provide across-the-board increases in science funding and inject billions into the fights against COVID-19 and climate change.

Although short on detail, the budget proposal would raise core funding for research and development across nearly every major federal science agency, including historic increases to improve public health and battle racial injustices. In line with a US$2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal released by Biden on 31 March, the budget puts a clear emphasis on applied research and development programmes intended to make the United States healthier, cleaner and more competitive.

The document provides only a broad view of the president’s priorities: further details are expected in a more complete proposal in the coming weeks. And although the president’s budget request kicks off a discussion about how to allocate monies in the United States each year, it is Congress that ultimately controls the budget and decides how much to give research agencies.

Nonetheless, after years of former president Donald Trump calling to slash science funding only to be rebuffed by Congress, the document comes as a relief to many scientists. “This is a radical change of pace from what we’ve seen for the past four years,” says Matthew Hourihan, director of the budget and policy programme for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

Fighting COVID-19 and funding health

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the United States, Biden proposes a massive investment in the country’s public-health system and a big boost to biomedical research. This is on top of pandemic response and relief packages awarded earlier this year, when Congress directed a total of $49.4 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have received more than $3.6 billion for research on vaccines, treatments and tests.

To revive the country’s neglected public-health system, Biden requested an $8.7-billion budget for the CDC. If doled out by Congress, this would be the largest budget increase for the agency — 23% — in nearly two decades. The money would fund long-term improvements, such as modernizing data collection nationwide, strengthening the country’s ability to respond to emerging diseases, and training epidemiologists and public health experts for federal, state and local health departments.

“This is a signal that the White House is serious about bolstering the nation’s public-health efforts,” says Jennifer Kates, the senior vice president at KFF, a non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco, California. Between 2008 and 2019, local health departments lost a total of 31,000 employees, and their budgets sank by 30%, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, a health advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.

Biden’s stated priority to achieve health equity in the United States is borne out by various requests in his proposal. For instance, it allots $150 million more to the CDC for tracking health disparities and collecting data, and $200 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the maternal mortality crisis that disproportionately claims the lives of Native American and Black women.

The biggest science funding agency in the United States, the NIH, would receive a $9-billion boost, for a total of $51 billion, according to the budget proposal. Most of that increase would launch a new $6.5-billion agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, focused on accelerating the development of treatments for cancer and other intractable diseases. The planned unit echoes Biden’s own research interests as vice president under former president Barack Obama. After Biden’s son Beau died in 2015 following a brain cancer diagnosis, Biden led the cancer “moonshot” initiative proposed by Obama in 2016.

Biden’s proposal did not include a specific request for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), other than to note that some funding for future public health crises would enhance “FDA’s organizational capacity”. The Biden administration still has not nominated a permanent agency head; it is currently led by acting commissioner Janet Woodcock.

Battling climate change

Biden has made climate change a priority by bringing the United States back into the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a move that will culminate this month with an international climate summit hosted by the White House. Biden’s infrastructure plan unveiled in March proposed hundreds of billions of dollars for clean-energy efforts, and this week’s budget would follow up by giving a massive boost across multiple agencies to research examining the environmental and public-health implications of climate change.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, which endured four years of proposed budget slashing under Trump, funding would rise more than 21% to $11.2 billion. Nearly half of that increase — $936 million — would be devoted to a new environmental justice initiative within the agency that would promote environmental cleanup and jobs in disadvantaged communities. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would see its budget increase by more than 25%, to $6.9 billion, including $800 million for climate research and $500 million for weather and climate satellites.

Some of the biggest climate-related increases in Biden’s spending plan would come in the arena of applied energy research. At the Department of Energy, funding would surge for a raft of clean-energy innovation programmes, including $2 billion for an infrastructure and job-training programme meant to help achieve the president’s goal of carbon-free electricity by 2035. The budget would also increase research funding for clean-energy technologies by more than 27%, to $8 billion, and invest another $1 billion in the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and a new entity focused more broadly on climate, dubbed ARPA-C.

All told, the spending proposals Biden laid out over the past two weeks would represent the largest investments ever in climate and clean energy, and are an order of magnitude larger than those achieved under Obama, says Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute, United States, an environmental think tank in Washington DC.

“There will be some back and forth and some tweaks,” says Lashof, “but I think the core of it is likely to move forward.”

Investing in the physical sciences

The proposed budget includes a 20% increase for the second largest science funding agency in the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would receive $10.2 billion. This includes $1.2 billion for research on climate change and clean energy and $100 million — a roughly 50% increase — for programmes to advance racial equity in science and engineering. Biden’s request would increase basic research funding to $9.4 billion, and reiterates the administration’s interest in establishing a new directorate at NSF for technology, innovation and applied research. A specific funding request for this directorate is not enumerated in the proposed budget, but Biden suggested an additional investment of $50 billion in the NSF to advance US leadership in emerging technologies as part of the infrastructure plan announced in March.

Congress has also recently signalled interest in dramatically boosting the NSF budget and adding a technology directorate. Bills presented to both the House and Senate with bipartisan support each propose increased funding beyond what Biden requested today. Both Congress and the Biden administration cite a critical need to stay competitive with major economies such as China that have aggressively invested in research and development.

At NASA, Biden would more moderately boost the space agency’s budget by 6.3%, to $24.7 billion. The proposal includes a 5% increase for the Artemis programme, which aims to send astronauts back to the Moon.

Biden, a Democrat, will now face his own challenges as he seeks to advance his aggressive — and expensive — agenda on Capitol Hill. With rising deficits and an economy reeling from the pandemic, Republicans and some centrist Democrats are already raising concerns about another round of sharp increases in federal spending.

Scientists will get a second glimpse and plenty of additional details about Biden’s priorities when the final budget arrives in the coming weeks. But for now, says Hourihan, “this certainly seems like an ambitious opening proposal.”