Senate stimulus bill includes $500M for research, $100M more than House

The Senate economic stimulus package contains about $100 million more for climate change research than the House-passed version, paving the way for a possible confrontation in negotiations as some lawmakers question whether such spending should even be included.

The House on Wednesday passed a stimulus package with about $400 million for climate change-related and other earth science research under NASA, while the Senate version provides $500 million. The Senate bill is expected on the floor next week.

NASA is the largest funding source for climate research because of its satellite monitoring programs. In recent years, though, the agency has struggled because of budget cuts, and competition from the space flight program has caused a decline in earth science spending. In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences warned that belt-tightening at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the other primary climate research agency, had put the United States' ability to monitor climate change and severe weather "at great risk."

A panel of experts assembled by the academy recommended pumping about $500 million per year into satellite programs at the two agencies, which would bring their budgets back to Clinton-era funding levels. But despite interest from congressional Democrats and, during the fiscal 2009 budget process, the White House, funding levels for the programs have stagnated (ClimateWire, Jan. 16).

The stimulus provides an important opportunity for ensuring that research into the causes of climate change continues, said Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "We need to deal with climate change and how we deal with it is critical and the science we use with which to base our decisions is critical," Feinstein said in an interview. "So we have to have good science, and this gives us another opportunity to get there."

But some Republicans argue that the stimulus bill is not the way to achieve that goal because it does not necessarily meet the goal of stimulating the economy.

"It's not stimulating," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "The stimulus bill should do one of two things: either have tax incentives that promote people to loosen up their capital, as we've experienced in the past, or to have a jobs bill. Those are things that are a stimulus, either jobs or tax incentives. More studying on global warming is not a stimulus."

Kei Koizumi, director of an American Association for the Advancement of Science program that tracks research and development spending at federal science agencies, said the money could help the economy because it would go to projects that are ready to go.

"Both the House and Senate bills would give money to get some delayed climate change earth sciences missions back on track," Koizumi said. "In the climate area, these bills could get U.S. capabilities back to where they need to be, which is important if we're going to continue to try to understand the dimensions of climate change."

Overall, the House version gives NASA $600 million, while the Senate bill directs $1.5 billion. The majority of that difference -- $500 million -- of the Senate version is for development funding for U.S. human space flight capabilities.

Meanwhile, both bills include similar spending for NOAA -- the House bill directs $1 billion to NOAA, while the Senate version includes $1.2 billion.

"For NOAA, either the House or the Senate [bill] would be an enormous boost to a regular budget that's about $4 billion a year," Koizumi said. "$1 billion in the stimulus for a $4 billion agency is tremendous."

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