Largest-Ever NSF Budget Passes First Test


Frank Wolf
Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia is retiring after 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With no controversy and the only discussion about how best to honor the retiring chairman of the panel, the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees the unlikely bedfellows of justice, commerce and scientific agencies this morning approved its piece of the U.S. government’s omnibus funding bill for the next fiscal year. The bill will next appear before the full Appropriations Committee before heading to the Senate for its approval en route to the president’s desk.

Among the $51.2 billion approved by the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee was $7.4 billion for the National Science Foundation in fiscal year 2015. That’s $237 million more that the amount allocated for the current year, and also higher than the foundation’s own $7.255 billion request for 2015. It’s also a record allocation for the NSF and comes in a year where austerity is a watchword. The ranking Democrat on the Republican-helmed panel, Chaka Fattah, praised the bill for large percentage increases in spending on neuroscience, one of the Pennsylvania legislator’s passions.

Almost all of the morning markup session was devoted to encomiums to the retiring chair of the subcommittee, Virginia Republican Frank Wolf. The praise came from both sides of the aisle, and most shared the words “calm” and “passionate” about the 17-term congressman who has long been seen as “science-friendly.”

NSF funding is particularly important for the social sciences—the foundation estimates it pays for 55 percent of the total federal support for basic research that goes to social science. Almost all of that is funneled through the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Science, one of seven directorates at the NSF. Historically, the SBE accounts for 3.5 percent of the total NSF budget.

Within the NSF section of the bill moved forward today, the appropriations subcommittee approved $6 billion for the research-funding activities of the directorates. Apart from $520 million set aside specifically for polar research, the appropriators did not direct which sorts of science the NSF should pay for.

That is a different approach than that seen in a different Republican-sponsored bill also making its way through the House. The Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology, or FIRST, act authorizes funding for the current and 2015 fiscal years, and it also specifies how much money would go to each directorate. While in most cases those allocations are similar to what the NSF usually spends on each directorate, FIRST intentionally reduces spending on the SBE directorate. An early version essentially halved its normal budget; the current version circulating in the House reduces the allocation by a fourth, to $200 million in the current fiscal year. (One popular analogy of the two-step authorization/appropriations process is that authorization is telling your children they can go to the movies, while appropriations is giving them the money to do so.)

The National Science Board, in an unusually overt act of advocacy, has publicly criticized the FIRST bill and its intrusion into spending decisions that traditionally have been left to the agency itself. The board directs the actions of the NSF.

In the minimum amount of discussion about the actual bill before them Wednesday, the Republican head of the full Appropriations Committee, Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers did use some of the phrases that have accompanied GOP talking points that discount spending on social science research. For example, Rogers noted that NSF spending needed to focus on “core federal functions” and that the government needed to make “smart investments in science and space,” but his remarks did not define those as excluding any particular area or discipline.

Other appropriations within the NSF portion of the bill include $201 million for facilities, including continuing work on its new headquarters building; $876 million for education; $335 million for operations; $4.4 million to run the National Science Board; and $14.4 million for Office of the Inspector General.

While the appropriations bill does not direct granular-level spending with the NSF, the foundation is responsible for presenting its detailed spending plan back to the committee within 60 days of the bill passing.

In other parts of the 102-page bill of interest to social scientists, the Census Bureau would receive $1.2 billion, which is $173 million more that the current year but $94 million below what it asked for. And while politically generated micromanagement was not seen in the NSF section, it does poke its way into the Census appropriation: the bill specifically notes that Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey will use the same health insurance questions in prior years, and not the revised questions that debuted this February.


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