NSF Chief Presents Budget to House Thursday

Cora MarrettCora Marrett, the acting head of the National Science Foundation, is scheduled to appear this Thursday before a panel of the House Appropriations Committee to discuss the agency’s 2015 budget request. Marrett’s testimony before the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee will begin at 10 a.m. ET in room H-309 of the Capitol Building.

The foundation’s support of U.S. research is large. “NSF provides 24 percent of total federal support of academic basic research in all science and engineering fields in the U.S., meaning we expect some 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities, and other institutions to receive NSF funding,” Marrett said last week. But if it’s large across the board, it’s a huge footprint some disciplines—NSF estimates it pays for 55 percent of the total federal support for basic research that goes to social science.

NSF has asked for about 1.2 percent more–$83 million– in its fiscal year 2015 budget than it received in the current fiscal year, for a total of $ 7.255 billion. The agency offered its official request to Congress on March 10, and it released a strategic plan for 2014 to 2018 three days later.

Marrett, above, said then that allocations within the NSF-proposed budget were roughly in line with previous budgets, with the exceptions of $43 million more for education and human resources and $40 million more associated with moving the foundation’s to a new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. That move is expected to be complete by 2016. Eighty percent of NSF’s budget goes to research projects, she added, paying for about 11,000 grants that engage more than a quarter million researchers, teachers and students.

Most of the initiatives Marrett, a sociologist, has spotlighted in the last week focus on physical sciences and STEM fields, she has given one behavioral science project extra attention:

NSF will invest $29 million in FY 2015 in ongoing cognitive science and neuroscience research, including NSF’s contributions to the Administration’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovation and Neurotechnologies–that’s the formal name for the BRAIN Initiative. Improved understanding of the brain will promote brain health, enable engineered solutions that address lost neurological functions, improve the effectiveness of formal and informal educational approaches, and lead to brain-inspired smarter technologies for improved quality of life.

While the amount of the NSF’s request is roughly comparable a bill offered by House Republicans for funding the NSF and some other research-oriented agencies, how the money is allocated within the agency is different. The FIRST bill (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act of 2014) offered by Texas’s Lamar Smith and Indiana’s Larry Bucshon reduces the status quo for two NSF divisions, those responsible for social sciences and geosciences, and spreads the money over five other directorates. After a first markup in a House Science subcommittee, FIRST calls for NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences to receive 25 percent less (for a total of $200 million) than it currently receives. In the current fiscal year, the SBE division saw a 7.1 percent increase–$18 million more–than it got in 2013. SBE takes up 3.5 percent of NSF’s budget.

To be clear, the FIRST bill, and a competing a re-authorization bill for the America COMPETES Act proposed by House Democrats, are ‘authorization’ bills and so set policy and direction. Nitty-gritty spending decisions are made in the Appropriations arena. As Democratic Congressman Larry Lipinski told Social Science Space last week, “When the House Appropriations committee does their bill, I expect it to be higher [for SBE] because they tend to adhere to administration’s direction.”

Despite the social and geoscience cuts, FIRST is actually more generous than the president’s request. FIRST would raise $24 million more to NSF, a 1.5 percent increase, than the Executive Branch’s plan.

Having a bill that specifically lays out how NSF allocates its budget is unconventional, but not unknown. Traditionally, Congress presents a lump amount to the agency, which then determines on its own how best to spend that money on research. By targeting areas of inquiry that traditionally have stepped on conservative toes, the GOP has been accused of letting politics trump evidence. But Smith argues that he’s just seeking high quality—and high economic impact—research on the limited federal dime.

The FIRST Act assures that scarce taxpayer dollars are spent on high quality science that promotes our national interest. In recent years, the NSF has funded a number of questionable research grants – using up taxpayer money that would have been better spent on higher priorities. For example, how does the federal government justify spending $50,000 to study lawsuits in Peru from 1600-1700? Or almost $340,000 for early human-set fires in New Zealand?

The science community tends not to see the issue through the same zero-sum prism, and has united to sink FIRST.

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