Public Policy and the Graduate Student Part 1: It Always Comes Down to Budgets

By Tamara Escajadillo

As graduate students in the Biomedical Sciences program at UCSD, we are privileged to live in “America’s Finest City.” Sure, this title does come at the expense of higher living costs (budget, budget, budget!), but we generally don’t have to worry about how our time in graduate school will be funded. This is not always the case for other programs across the country. Funding becomes more of a concern the higher you climb up the ladder after your PhD. Although we are all probably (or will become) familiar with some aspects of applying for external or training grants from places like the NIH, the question of where the process for budget allocations starts may remain more elusive. In this brief segment we will try to condense a seemingly word heavy topic into a good old elevator spiel.

In this election year, we have been exposed to political candidates and their views on everything from important topics such as terrorism and the economy to often times less important topics that we will not get into in this article, but perhaps have at least provided some comic relief, if nothing else. Who gets elected into office can have a direct effect on how budgets get allocated every fiscal year, because the first part of the funding process begins with the President’s budget request for the incoming fiscal year, which begins on October 1st. This budget request usually comes out on the first Monday in February, and basically tells Congress how much money the President thinks the federal government should spend, and how to prioritize that spending. This has implications, not only for the coming year, but also the next ten years, because while some programs need to be renewed every year (annually appropriated programs or discretionary spending, which we will come to later but remember the term!), others are ongoing and only need to be renewed periodically (which is mandatory spending; again, we will get to it later).

After the President’s budget request is out, Congress steps in and develops their own budget plan, termed a budget resolution, which needs to be approved by the House and the Senate. The budget resolution for the year is officially adopted when both houses approve. Getting everyone to agree on anything is difficult, but especially in this type of situation. Sometimes they don’t end up agreeing by the April 15th deadline, so the one from the previous year is used, because as I said, some budget resolutions span many years into the future. Once adopted, Congress figures out what types of bills and legislation they need in order to enact any changes to the budget.

So, where is all of this money going and what does it mean for us in the scientific community? I’m glad you asked.

Now to get to the good part. There are different categories and subcategories for federal spending, and it basically boils down to the next few sentences (which are very well described in pie charts that I would recommend viewing on sites such as or The first categories are mandatory and discretionary spending as well as the interest on federal debt (yup, even the government has to worry about those pesky loans). Mandatory spending is outside the annual appropriations process (so it is more solidly funded every year) and makes up nearly two-thirds of the total federal budget. It includes programs such as Medicare, transportation, food and agriculture, and Social Security. What we are interested in is discretionary funding, i.e. annually appropriated programs, which is where science is thrown in alongside housing, education, government, international affairs and military.FY 2015 mandatory and discretinoary spending and interest on federal debt in 2015 dollarsSo let’s break it down with numbers: in fiscal year 2015, the federal budget was $3.8 trillion dollars; roughly 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Of this total federal budget, $1.1 trillion was allocated to discretionary spending, and of that, 53.17% was given to the military ($598.49 billion) and science was given 3.51% ($39.14 billion), with most of this money going to the National Institutes of Health (roughly $32 billion) and some to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Now, around $40 billion sounds like a lot of money, but as we all know, science is not cheap. Ever cringe when your ELISA data didn’t fall on the standard curve because you forgot to dilute your samples and you have to order a new kit? We also have to worry about a little thing called inflation. In fact, from fiscal year 2003 up to 2015, the NIH has lost about 22% of its capacity to fund research due to inflation, budget cuts, and the fact that we still have not fully recovered from the effects of sequestration a few years ago.discretionary_spending_pie,_2015_enacted

However, it is not all ominous! The good news is that Congress increased the NIH budget by around 6% for 2016, but a key element is that this increase needs to be sustained and predictable in order to protect Biomedical Research. The new proposed budget for FY 2017 would only increase the NIH budget by 2.6% over 2016, but would rely heavily on Congress to actually get the funding done.

So when you are going out to the polls this year (and every year), remember to read up on where your candidate stands on discretionary spending and science, not only for the presidential race, but also for your representatives in Congress. And for those of you who are interested in public policy, join us next time when we will go over how to start getting some experience in Washington and maybe do a round of who is our Congressional representative. Lastly, don’t forget the moral of the story: budget, budget, budget!


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