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More Belt-Tightening in Store for NASA as STEM Education Programs Face Consolidation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Copies of the 2013 federal budget

Printed copies of the 2013 budget, courtesy GPO.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has just released President Obama’s budget request for 2014. It will take some time for the budget’s full impacts on science to be dissected and debated, but here is a quick look at how one closely watched agency—NASA—fared.

The president’s budget, which is subject to Congressional negotiation and approval, would provide $17.7 billion for NASA, down a bit from the previous year. As widely reported, the budget request includes money to begin work on an ambitious plan to robotically capture an asteroid and haul it closer to Earth for exploration. It also keeps the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope in development for a 2018 launch.

The agency’s education and outreach programs look to have fared somewhat worse. “The Budget includes a bold reorganization of Federal STEM programs that uses existing resources more effectively and in a more streamlined, consolidated way,” according to the OMB document summarizing the president’s budget blueprint for NASA (pdf). “The Budget redirects $47.5 million of funding from small NASA education programs throughout the agency to other agencies where these funds will be consolidated with similar resources from across the Federal Government.” (Anytime an official document includes the words “bold reorganization,” “streamlined” and “consolidated,” duck.)

More details on how the budget will impact astronomy and space exploration should be forthcoming this afternoon, when NASA administrator Charles Bolden briefs reporters on the agency’s plans.

It’s already been a tough few months for NASA, along with the rest of the federal government. The federal budget sequestration, which cut funds across the board, led NASA to impose strict new limits on agency travel. That has curbed the attendance of NASA scientists at scientific conferences, eliciting a statement of concern from the American Astronomical Society:

Scientific meetings and conferences are a principal mechanism for researchers, students, and educators to facilitate and strengthen their interaction and collaborations with peers in their field, thereby advancing the state of knowledge in that field….

NASA has effectively capped conference attendance at 50 employees and contractors and prohibited all attendance at foreign conferences. Given the mission need for NASA personnel to regularly meet with international collaborators, we believe our international leadership in space will be undermined by this prohibition.

The sequester also wiped some conferences off the calendar altogether. Two planned meetings at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore have been canceled, including the institute’s annual May symposium, a multiday meeting that focuses on a different scientific topic each year. The 2013 May symposium had been themed “Habitable Worlds Across Time and Space.” A statement posted to the STScI Web site explained why the conferences were terminated: “In response to fiscal impacts resulting from the United States Government sequestration, NASA has temporarily suspended the contract authority of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and all funding that enables us to host conferences and seminars.”

Even as NASA reels under the sequester and braces for operations under next year’s budget, its funding for this year has taken another small hit. As space analyst Jeff Foust explained on his Space Politics blog, the difference between the money Congress appropriated to NASA and the money the agency can actually spend is now about $1.24 billion:

Late last week, OMB used its powers under the Budget Control Act to make an additional 0.2% across-the-board cut for all agencies to account for differences in economic forecasts for the housing market as well as adjusting for additional spending added by the Senate for meatpacking inspectors. Combined with the original 1.877% rescission and 5% sequestration, it means NASA’s $17.862 billion in the bill is reduced to about $16.62 billion.

All of which is a reminder that the $17.7 billion in Obama’s budget is only a starting point. How much Congress actually approves, and then how much the agency actually receives, won’t be settled for months.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 1:58 pm 04/10/2013

    The sequester is the least of NASA’s problems. Apparently a majority of US citizens have never recognised the the positive value of NASA and its accomplishments. I’m just glad I was old enough to appreciate what they did during the 1960′s, and young enough to hope for more. Hope that our leaders would stop counting the non-contributory entity vote and lead seems a foolish one at times.

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  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 2:26 pm 04/10/2013

    NASA’s due for a belt-tightening? They don’t have pants.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 3:26 pm 04/10/2013

    The best long term prospects for space exploration is if the USA and other countries get their finances in order. Otherwise cuts will continue to all agencies. The cookie jar is overflowing with IOUs.

    Few Americans are ‘inspired’ by the space program. The digital revolution channeled a lot of energy from space engineering to information technology. Geeks discuss the latest in hand held ‘whatever’ and not Saturn rockets. NASA has little influence today.

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 5:03 pm 04/10/2013

    Maybe there’s a significant number of child leaders disappointed enough in our national abandonment of NASA to do something about it after they’ve graduated to the engineering and political ranks. Maybe our current crop of naysayers needs a breather in nursing homes.

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  5. 5. ConorS 10:04 pm 04/23/2013

    Do not fret…At my high school, there are plenty of kids who wear NASA shirts, talk about NASA missions, and who openly declare disgust at its current budget. However, NASA definitely needs more vocal supporters to get the budget it deserves. Honestly, I say give every penny from defense to NASA.

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