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Federal funding flat

By Dan Gilchrist

October 7, 2008

Federal funding for research and most other purposes will be flat under a $630 billion continuing resolution signed into law Sept. 30. The measure funds the government for the first five months of FY 2009 beginning Oct. 1, except for the Departments of Defense (DOD), Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs, which all received yearlong appropriations. The Pell grant program received $2.5 billion in new funding to meet a projected shortfall, but nearly all other accounts, including those of research agencies, were frozen at the same level of funding as in FY 2008.

Of course, for programs that rely on federal dollars, flat funding is not really flat, because inflation erodes the purchasing power of these unchanged appropriations. Agency programs end up scaling back existing plans and delaying new program starts. Worse yet: National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA have been operating with budgets slightly boosted over FY 2008 levels because of an earlier non-recurring FY 2008 supplemental budget bill; their budgets will now drop back to FY 2008 levels. (Early indications from DOE are that the NOvA high energy physics project, which has significant University of Minnesota participation and includes a new laboratory to be built in northern Minnesota, will have funding to proceed through March).

The only research accounts to see a significant funding increase in the CR were those of DOD, under which basic research received an additional $1.8 billion, a 12.7 percent increase above FY 2008.

In September, President Bruininks and other Big Ten leaders wrote to congressional leaders to remind them of their earlier commitments to improve economic competitiveness through research funding--commitments that remain unfulfilled at the federal government's current funding levels. A supplemental budget/economic stimulus bill for FY 2009 that included additional funding for NIH, NASA, and DOE failed to achieve the 60 votes needed for consideration in the Senate, despite the votes of Minnesota's senators.

The move to a continuing resolution was not unexpected; this is the sixth time in eleven years that Congress has been unable to pass a yearlong budget. This spring, an appropriations committee staff member told a room of college lobbyists that if the old saw that "making laws is like making sausages" is right, then the sausage machine is broken. Lawmakers are expected to revisit passing a budget for the remainder of FY 2009 after the November election, possibly in a lame duck session of Congress or, more likely, once the 111th Congress and a new president have taken office in January. For more information, see Federal Relations.