New Congress Gets First Peek at Proposed NSF Budget

Re. Barbara Comstock
Freshman Representative Barbara Comstock chairs the House of Representatives Science Committee’s Research and Technology subcommittee this term.
It’s a new year and a new U.S. Congress, but “unpopular” science is again preparing to walk a tightrope as legislators question the value of funding researchers whose investigations don’t always immediately result in jobs, money or national security.

Thursday the directors of the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as the chairman of the National Science Board, presented the NSF and NIST budget requests to the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees federal science and technology spending. In the last Congress and under the Republican subcommittee chair Larry Bucshon of Indiana, the NSF’s Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science – the arm of the NSF that focuses on funding social science research — narrowly avoided seeing its budget eviscerated in an authorization bill.

This year, and under chair Barbara Comstock, a Republican from Virginia, the old rhetoric quickly resurfaced albeit in a less tense atmosphere.

In his introductory remarks, Lamar Smith, who chairs the full Science committee under which Comstock’s panel nestles, singled out social science for unwelcome attention. “Our challenge is to set funding priorities that ensure America remains first in the global marketplace of ideas and products, without misusing the American people’s hard-earned tax dollars,” Smith said. “For example, why does the administration increase funding for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Science directorate by over 7 percent while proposing an average of less than 4 percent for the Biology, Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematical and Physical Science directorates?”

In the budget proposed by the White House, the SBE directorate is seeing a greater percentage increase – 7.1 percent, or $19.3 million, above this year’s $272 million — than any other NSF directorate. However, its $291 million dollar requested budget is by far the smallest of any of the award-granting directorates in total funding. (The next smallest budget for a NSF directorate is the computer and information science directorate, with a requested budget of $954 million.)

The total NSF budget request for the coming fiscal year is $7.72 billion, which is a 5.2 percent increase over the $7.34 billion budget enacted for this year.

In later questioning, Smith asked the NSF director, France Cόrdova, if she thought the SBE was more important than the other directorates. “Why should it,” he asked, “get a bigger increase than the others?”

Cόrdova, an astrophysicist, noted that that the SBE increase included extra funding for the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics — “it does the Science and Engineering Indicators report,” she added – which pushed the increase to that 7 percent.

In his remarks, Dan Arvizu, who chairs the National Science Board, which in turn oversees the NSF, addressed the value of the Indicators report. He connected it to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields that don’t generally face the GOP’s ire:

The board’s congressionally mandated biennial Science and Engineering Indicators Report — along with a suite of related resources — provides comprehensive data and findings on educational and workforce issues and insights on areas where we can and must do better as a nation. The board will soon be releasing a policy report that revisits the U.S. STEM workforce and provides a new perspective on how we view both STEM education and training opportunities as well as the nation’s job landscape

Not all the attention on SBE was threatening. Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, the highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, threw a softball to Cόrdova by asking how important SBE was solving “grand challenges.” The NSF director responded that in university visits she’s found social, behavioral and economic investigation woven into “everything we do and think about as scientists and engineers,” and as a result physical and medical scientists increasingly recognize the importance of having social scientists on board. Citing the Biodesign Institute’s Nanotech in Society Center at Arizona State University, she said that “sometimes scientists make a pause and head off in the different directions after being informed by their SBE colleagues sitting at the table.”

A lot of the static that social science funding has received from Republicans in Congress is that social science research is a luxury that a strapped nation can ill afford. Similar dog whistles, which seemed pointed at SBE but didn’t mention it directly, were heard throughout the hearing. “In this budget environment,” said Comstock, “just maintaining the current level of basic research support is a big challenge. We have a constitutional obligation and a responsibility to ensure every dollar allocated for scientific research is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

In what could be construed as an effort to blunt that line of attack, Cordova and Arvizu went to some pains to show how they are being wise stewards of the their existing budgets, whether it was in “lean” administration, pushing to spend more time on discovery or keeping an eye on large facilities projects. “The [National Science Board] takes very seriously its responsibility to provide strong governance and proper stewardship of this taxpayer investment,” Arvizu said.

But projects involving animals or foreign countries still meet with congressional questions …

Alabama Republican Gary Palmer asked about a specific grant that had a star turn in last year’s swan-song Wastebook Report from Senator Tom Coburn: a $171,000 continuing grant to study the gambling habits of monkeys (it made the report’s cover). “Taxpayers are likely to go totally bananas that NSF is monkeying around with federal research dollars,” Coburn’s report joked.

Cόrdova responded that sometimes silly-sounding research often results in serious benefits, a point often made by the larger science community. For example, in the gambling monkeys study, one of the authors, University of Rochester brain and cognitive sciences professor Benjamin Hayden, made the benefits to people explicit. As he was quoted last year: “If a belief in winning streaks is hardwired, then we may want to look for more rigorous retraining for individuals who cannot control their gambling. And investors should keep in mind that humans have an inherited bias to believe that if a stock goes up one day, it will continue to go up.”

Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the full Science committee, had anticipated the “silly grants” meme in her opening remarks, and chided his Republican colleagues for believing that “Some fields, some grants, are less worthy than others. Personally, I do not have the expertise to make these decisions, and so I trust in the merit review process” in which the NSF allows subject experts to vet the 50,000 grant proposals it receives each. (It funds roughly one in five.)

Smith was pleased, however, that the NSF had adopted some of the “transparency” language that appeared in his failed FIRST bill from last year. The Frontiers in Innovation, Science, and Technology act would have re-authorized NSF funding for two years but included provisions that reduced SBE funding and set specific allowances for various directorates, instead of letting the NSF decide. That, and items such as language on open access and peer review, earned FIRST the enmity of the science community and even a rare letter from the National Science Board critical of some of the bill’s elements.

The transparency suggestions, however, met a warmer reception. “I do want to mention and applaud the steps taken by NSF to improve transparency and accountability,” Smith said in his prepared remarks. “NSF’s new policy acknowledges the need for NSF to communicate clearly and in non-technical terms when the agency describes the research projects it funds. The new policy also emphasizes that the title and abstract for each funded grant should act as the public justification for NSF funding.”

Smith was unusually eager to show that the NSF’s actions shared DNA with FIRST, which many think he will re-introduce during the current Congress:

It appears the new NSF policy parallels a significant provision of the FIRST Act approved by this Committee last fall–a requirement that NSF publish a justification for each funded grant that sets forth the project’s scientific merit and national interest. The reference to the 1950 original enabling legislation and its NSF mission statement is consistent with the FIRST Act, too.

Even after both Cόrdova and Arvizu thanked Smith for “moving us” in the direction of greater transparency, and agreed with the gist of his intent, Smith asked if they approved of FIRST’s language. “I can speak without hesitation that I support ‘the goal,” said Arvizu.

“Beyond the goal, do you support the language?” Smith pressed.

“With what we’ve seen so far, I think we can support the language,” Arvizu said.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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