Two Visions of NSF Funding Before House This Week

UPDATE: On May 19 the House Committee on Rules approved an “open rule” for the appropriations bill for commerce, justice and science. The rule gives priority to amendments that are pre-printed in the Congressional Record. No other action concerning the bill was taken at that hearing.


Two visions for the near future of funding for the National Science Foundation, which in turn funds the majority of university-based social science research in the United States, will be considered by different committees of the House of Representatives this week.

This afternoon at 5 p.m. EST, the Rules Committee will hear the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015, which as its name suggests sets aside funding for a number of federal agencies, including the NSF. The hearing will be broadcast on CSPAN-3.

The bill increases the funding for the NSF in the next fiscal year to $7.4 billion, which is 3 percent higher than the current year’s budget — and 2 percent higher than what the agency requested. Of that amount, just under $6.0 billion is specifically allocated for research and research related activities, which is 3 percent above both this year’s spending and what NSF sought. If it becomes law, this appropriation would create the largest budget NSF has ever had.

While both Republicans and Democrats have sought to increase research funding — at least in the STEM fields — there are knives out for parts of NSF’s budget. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has called for cutting the agencies entire education and human resources spending, some $876 million, saying it demonstrates “extensive overlap and duplication in the federal government.” As Heritage pointed out, the Congressional Budget Office itself has suggested “eliminat[ing] National Science Foundation spending on elementary and secondary education” as a budget-cutting option. (See page 280)

In its markup before the full House Appropriations Committee on May 8, the NSF portion sailed through, although $5 million of its allocation for research was nicked to help backfill cuts to a Pacific Coast salmon recovery program. In today’s hearing, proposed amendments to the bill can be brought up from the floor, so the direction of any debate — if any — on science funding is not known.

That question arises in part because of portions of a another bill, this one authorizing funding for NSF and National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, that will be marked up by the full House Science Committee on Wednesday. That bill, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014, known as FIRST, creates specific funding levels for the seven directorates inside NSF that determine which research projects to support. It also allocates $7.2 billion to the agency, $200 million less than the appropriations bill; some $164 million of difference lies in funding for research. (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.)

This level of management by Congress into the operations of the NSF — unusual but not unheard of, and currently absent in the appropriations bill — is one of the reasons that FIRST received a frosty welcome and continuing cold shoulder from the science community. The National Science Board, for example, wrote in an unusually critical public letter:

Our greatest concern is that the bill’s specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”

Of particular concern to the social science community, FIRST also reduces the allocation going to the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate by $56 million, to $200 million, compared to the current budget. (The exact impact of that remains to be seen, since FIRST authorizes funding for the current fiscal year, which began on October 1.) This fits in with longstanding complaints that many Republicans have had with social, political and economic science research, which they have pitted against “high quality” science, technology, engineering and math programs in a zero-sum budgeting process.

Members of the science community have had other concerns about various provisions of FIRST, which also contains touchy language on open access, scientific misrepresentation, merit review, and limits on visiting academics at NSF.

The markup of the FIRST bill will be webcast live starting at 2 p.m. EST on Wednesday. Click here to watch.

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