By Ivan Semeniuk of Nature magazine

The most fractious and combative US Congress in recent memory is getting on with approving a 2012 budget--although perhaps only so that it can move more swiftly to the next battlefield. On November 17, legislators passed a spending bill that includes allocations for several key science-related agencies. The bill has since been signed off by President Barack Obama.

The budget was a relief for researchers and their advocates, who had feared deeper cuts to science. Under the provisions of the bill, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all received modest increases (see A work in progress).

Even NASA, which has seen its budget shrink by nearly $1 billion over the past two years--essentially because it has ended the space-shuttle program--kept all its major science initiatives. It even got an increase for the 6.5-meter James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which has been subject to chronic cost overruns that at one point prompted deficit-focused Republicans to propose dropping it from the space agency's budget altogether.

"That wakes you up," says Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC. The JWST has now been restored, with continued support endorsed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and NASA's science budget has increased by 3.1%. Although this by no means solves all of NASA's budget woes -- the agency is also facing questions about a series of missions to Mars (see Editorial, page 446)--it is a reassuring outcome in financially uncertain times. "Compared to where we could have been, we are in a good place for 2012," says Marvel.

The NSF is also cautiously optimistic: its budget grew unexpectedly by almost $200 million dollars to just over $7 billion. However, this falls short of the nearly $7.8 billion that Obama requested for the NSF in February. That amount would have helped to maintain a ten-year doubling of funding for the agency, as set out by the America COMPETES Act that was reauthorized last year.

The budget "lifts a huge cloud that was hanging over the agency and makes it into a much smaller one", says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC. Having used economic-stimulus money to increase funding to researchers in 2009-10, the NSF was already expecting to scale back its grants next year. The 2012 budget is not large enough to avoid that altogether, but the agency should be able to maintain its commitments to major research facilities while seeing a smaller reduction in grant-acceptance rates.

The FDA received a $50-million increase in its congressional appropriation, $39 million of which will go towards implementing a food-safety law passed in January. "It's good that they saw the need to pass that funding, but we would like to have seen more," says David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington DC. The FDA had estimated that it would need more than $183 million in extra funding in 2012 to implement the food-safety act.

The spending bill holds both victories and disappointments for NOAA. The agency's budget will increase, with an allocation of $924 million to continue funding its Joint Polar Satellite System--a program with a history of budget problems, but one that politicians are reluctant to attack because its data are crucial for forecasting severe weather. Not so fortunate was an effort to combine a series of government functions in a national climate service, a stated goal of Jane Lubchenco, who was appointed as NOAA director by Obama in 2009. With climate science a favourite target of Republican ire, the proposed service was turned down.

Another Obama appointee who is feeling the wrath of the right is John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Noting the OSTP's defiance of a 2011 congressional rule that bans the office from collaborating with China (see Nature 478, 294-295; 2011), the House appropriations committee hacked away nearly one-third of the office's relatively small budget, leaving Holdren with $4.5 million to run his agency.

Neal Lane, a senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and a one-time science adviser to former US president Bill Clinton, calls this direct attack by the appropriations committee on a part of Obama's administration an unusual move that is "very counterproductive" for science policy, and will have damaging consequences for the OSTP and US-based research as whole. "It's the only place in the federal government where anybody is paying attention to the overall health of science and technology in the country," says Lane.

The action is one of many indications that the 2013 budget process, which will unfold during a presidential-election year, is likely to be hijacked and delayed by political manoeuvring. As Nature went to press, a bipartisan `supercommittee' of legislators tasked with finding a way to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion seemed all but certain to miss its 23 November deadline. This would trigger steep across-the-board cuts for all branches of the federal government, including all science-related agencies, beginning in January 2013--unless Congress intervenes before then to overturn its own rules (see Nature 476, 133-134; 2011).

In the short term, legislators will move on to the next phase of their 2012 budget negotiations. By 16 December they must agree on a budget for those branches of the government not addressed in last week's spending bill. Among those are the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, frequent victims of Republican attack that were marked for significant cuts in 2011. Also to be determined is the allocation for the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's largest research enterprise at $30 billion. The agency is waiting to learn whether its ambitious bid to launch a centre for translational science will survive this year's budget battles (see Nature 477, 141-142; 2011).

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on November 21, 2011.