NSF Boss Finds Friendly Reception in Appropriations Panel


Cora Marrett
A file photo of Cora Marrett

Competition was the concern du jour Thursday morning as the acting director of the National Science Foundation presented her organization’s 2015 budget request to the House Appropriations Committee. Unlike a hearing earlier in the month in which a Republican-sponsored bill that also covered NSF funding spotlighted partisan perceptions of the value of the social sciences, this hearing highlighted concerns over the China’s rapidly increasing research and development capability and the United States’ declining educational system.

In fact, the hearing never touched on funding for specific directorates within the NSF and instead looked at general issues of competitiveness, with occasional sidetrips on issues like icebreakers or NSF’s new headquarters facility.

Cora Marrett, the acting director of the NSF, presented the foundation’s $7.255 billion request for fiscal year 2015 to the Appropriations’ Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee. NSF asked for $83 million more in FY15 than was present in the current year’s budget, a 1.2 percent increase.

Congressmen questioning Marrett seemed concerned that the agency wasn’t asking for more and frustrated that they didn’t feel capable of granting more.

Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, who chairs the subcommittee, asked rhetorically if the proposed 1 percent increase “was likely to be wiped out by the increased cost of doing business.” He noted that other research agencies had estimated inflation at between 1.8 percent and 2.9 percent. Marrett acknowledged there could a small drop in the number—currently 11,000—of grant awards the foundation hands out every year, but it wasn’t anticipating “dramatic sorts of changes” due to inflation eating into the budget.

Meanwhile, Andy Harris, a physician and Republican from Maryland, argued that entitlement spending was “choking out” discretionary spending, which includes the NSF’s budget. In NSF’s case, he found this particularly galling because “no industry is going to do the basic research [that is NSF’s remit], they’re just not going to do it.”

Marrett is on the final lap of her top leadership of the NSF. The sociologist and deputy director of the NSF filled in as the agency’s leader after Subra Suresh left a year ago to take the reins at Carnegie Mellon University. Astrophysicist France Córdova, a former president of Purdue University, was nominated to a six-year term as director last July, but a slow confirmation process only culminated two weeks ago. Córdova will come on board next week and Marrett will return to her deputy role.

In her opening remarks, Marrett seemed prepared to defend all the areas in which NSF funds research, in particular the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) and geoscience directorates, which some Republicans want to reduce funding for. She cited the benefits of basic research that initially seemed weird but which later paid dividends in popular technology or public policy. Her opening anecdote concerned NSF-supported research into abstract auction theory and experimental economics—research which helped craft current policy on apportioning airwaves, which she says has netted the U.S. $60 billion so far.

For this audience, at least, she seemed to be preaching to the choir. Wolf, for instance, noted that certain grants “are seen as frivolous and wasteful,” and while he seemed at pains to imply that wasn’t on the whole his own view, oddball research plucked out as a bloody shirt “hurts up here” – i.e. generally NSF-friendly Appropriations’ decision-makers.

Marrett responded that NSF is focused on transparency and accountability, and that every level of the organization has some skin in the awards process. “We do pay attention to the tile and abstracts,” she said, to ensure they “clearly” communicate the impact and value of the underlying research. (It’s worth noting that titles and abstracts are relatively low-hanging fruit for those who want to cherry-pick oddball items to poke fun at.) “What we’ve discovered is that some people are better than others at communicating the value,” but that ultimately it’s not the principal investigators’ problem but the NSF’s to make sure the value is palpable and crystal clear.

Wolf quickly interjected that he didn’t want “spin,” but clarity, and Marrett readily agreed. She also noted that NSF wanted to be careful not to go too far down the other path, toward the cute or over-promised titles that then didn’t accurately describe what was being studied.

“We have to get the marketing correct,” added Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, “but we have to careful not to dumb down this process.” He then noted how some of the basic research that resulted in magnetic resonance imaging sprung from research into pockets in clouds; “we have to make a stronger case for basic science research, and how it later on supports major science breakthroughs.”

Fattah repeatedly stressed his long-standing interest in neuroscience, and cited a recent visit he made to Andrew Schwartz at Carnegie Mellon’s Quality of Life Technology Center –NSF-funded, naturally—as another example of weird basic research that isn’t useless in application. Thirty years ago, Fattah related, Schwartz started looking at monkey brains–“It’s what some of our colleagues would go to floor today saying look at this wasted research money,” the congressman observed wryly–and now this work allows the disabled to move automated limbs using their own brain commands.

The China Syndrome

Still, it was the image of political scientists and climate researchers wielding uncomfortable findings that bothered this committee, but the idea that the United States might be dethroned as the top research-producing nation in the world.

Wolf in particular painted an alarming picture of a nation in science, economic and even moral decline, and with an educational system—particularly in the primary and secondary levels, citing a feeling in his bones that “there’s something, just something wrong” in U.S. education.

Dan Arvizu, who chairs the National Science Board, addressed the R&D gap by noting that at present there is one—and the Chinese are behind. Citing the board’s annual Science and Engineering Indicators report, Arvizu said the U.S. spent $429 billion on public and private R&D last year, while China spent $208 billion. However, they are increasing spending at rate greater than that of the U.S.; in the United States the spending represents about 40 percent of our gross domestic product, while in China it’s 30 percent but increasing.

Marrett argued that the United States could remain the world’s top research destination, and that bigger budgets don’t automatically deliver the most innovation. She also suggested that the United States will, as a matter of practicality and for the best outcome, will have to work collaboratively across borders.

As far as education – NSF is heavily involved in promoting science, technology, engineering and math education from kindergarten through four-year colleges—Marrett painted a more complex picture, often using a rush drawn from the social sciences. Neither the U.S. China lead the global league in STEM education, she noted –those honors go to Singapore, Japan and Finland.

There are some mitigating factors—a greater percentage of American students take the tests, which lowers the overall score; some critics suggest foreign students focus more on memorization than discovery; America’s pre-college students actually do out-perform—but Marrett admitted that none of these explanations were totally satisfactory.

“I don’t want to understate how important this is for the NSF,” she said, noting that not only was the agency approaching it directly with their classroom initiatives, but indirectly via their SBE grants that explain both how people learn and how teaching works. This focus on the cognitive lead, she said, informs their task of bringing the science on these issues to those in the policy world.


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