In spite of these increases, the number of grants supported at the top quality levels has declined a bit. The reason for this is that the experimental program has given priority to increasing grant size as opposed to increasing the number of awards. In addition, the program has given attention to providing significant funds for equipment in order to keep funded projects competitive. The budget decreases that took place, particularly in FY2004 and FY2005, impacted this strategy (that is, increasing grant size and providing more funds for equipment) more significantly than they impacted the overall numbers of awards, which have not changed drastically. From FY1998 through FY2002 it was possible to make awards at the level requested, in some cases increasing existing awards by 30–40 percent. Beginning in FY2004 this was no longer feasible. Moreover, while it was possible to provide essentially all the capital equipment requested from FY1998 through FY2002, after that such funding had to be capped at $80,000 per award. Funding for capital equipment is also available through the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program, though the opportunity is somewhat limited because only two requests for funds are allowed per academic institution.
In FY1996 the theory program budget was at about $3.5 million per year. It peaked at $4.7 million per year in FY2001 and has since declined, to about $4.1 million per year in 2005. With advice from the community, the program has elected to keep awards at nearly the existing amount while having to decrease the number of awards. An increase of about 30 percent in the program budget would be needed to return the program to its dollar level in FY2001 and to make up for inflationary losses.