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United States - Education budget uncertainty

The chaos surrounding the US government’s spending bill raises questions about how effectively research agencies and universities can spend their allocations, experts have warned.

In March, US President Donald Trump signed into law a $1.3 trillion (Rs.83.35 lakh crore) spending bill, which outlines the budget for all federal departments and agencies for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, but the budgeting process was far from smooth. In January, the government officially shut down for the first time in five years after the Senate rejected a short-term spending bill to keep the federal government running in light of the delay.

The final budget is also markedly different from the priorities outlined in Trump’s request. The president had sought to cut funding for the Department of Education by $3.6 billion but in the approved version, its income has increased by $3.9 billion (Rs.25,613 crore).

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities each received a $3 million increase, despite the fact that the president’s budget had called for both to be eliminated. And the National Science Foundation was allocated $7.8 billion, $1.1 billion more than Trump had requested. Student aid programmes also received a boost in funding. Last year, Congress also rejected the president’s proposed research funding cuts.

Although the funding increases will be welcome news for the higher education sector, policy experts warn that the delay and unpredictability of the budget has created some complications for universities and research agencies. Terry Hartle, senior vice president in the division of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, says the budget process for the current fiscal year “has been a complete shambles”.
The hold-up in research funding “has delayed federal agencies” ability to solicit grant applications and make awards, “so I think you will see both scientists and federal officials scrambling to spend that money before September 30, when the current fiscal year ends,” he says. “Budget turmoil dramatically complicates government planning. Agencies don’t know how much money they have to work with, so they don’t know what initiatives they should expand or contract or initiate,” he adds.

Kenneth Wong, Walter and Leonore Annenberg chair for education policy at Brown University, agrees that the budget chaos “creates uncertainty and raises ambiguity in terms of the effectiveness of the use of these funds”. According to him, the funding delay “interrupted… some of the announcements of calls for (research) proposals” and in some cases, prevented agencies from releasing approved grants. “Any delay in those announcements for funding opportunities would affect how (scholars) organise their laboratory work and then how they think about collaboration,” he says. “It does raise a lot of operational uncertainty every time the funding agencies delay their announcement for funding opportunities.”