NSF Cites Mixed Messages in Current COMPETES Bill


Julia Brownley
California Congresswomen Julia Brownley has sponsored an amendment to the America COMPETES reauthorization bill that would restore social science research spending back to traditional levels.

Legislation that aims to increase American economic competitiveness falls down on several key points, according to an informal analysis of the bill by one of the federal agencies which the legislation would fund.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, or House Resolution 1806, would authorize funding for a number of federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation. But the NSF, an executive branch agency under Democratic President Barack Obama, is critical of the bill produced by the Republican-run House Science Committee.

A release from the NSF last week explains that while “it has been widely anticipated that a new authorizing act would enable actions to enhance the nation’s competitiveness through science and innovation” — and some portions – other elements of the legislation “contradict” this mission.

Those contradictions include two that riled the social science community when the bill passed out of the Science Committee on a party-line vote last month: setting specific authorization levels for the various research directorates at NSF, and gutting the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate’s budget. These concerns are raised even though the bill does increase the NSF’s budget overall.

Setting “arbitrary limits on scientific disciplines,” the NSF argues, “runs counter to the way NSF currently sets priorities for the Nation’s investment in science and engineering,” which is created by having experts listen and respond to the scientific community. NSF doesn’t complete the thought by saying that having politicians set the levels harms this process, but many scholarly societies are making that case in their advocacy messages regarding HR 1806.

In just one example, the Population Association of America (a social Science Space partner) and the Association of Population Centers told their members:

Although SBE represents a small fraction (5 percent) of the overall NSF budget, this directorate funds over half of all university-based social and behavioral science research. Cuts of this magnitude would compel the SBE Directorate to make difficult choices, including eliminating grants, programs, and staff and curtailing new scientific initiatives.

A report on the bill from the chairman of the Science Committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, does not explain the rationale for the cut, but it does call for “balancing the Nation’s research portfolio” among the various sciences.

The NSF also sets up the contradiction of calling for competitiveness but hobbling that effort in examining what it determines would be a 58 percent cut in SBE funding for the coming fiscal year. (Social Science Space uses the figure 45 percent, which is the difference between the allocation for the current fiscal year and the $150 million proposed in HR 1806, and not the difference between the president’s budget request and the House’s offer.)

Again, the NSF doesn’t say this is bad, but only puzzling: “NSF’s newer cross-directorate initiatives (e.g., Food-Energy-Water nexus, Risk & Resilience, Understanding the Brain) all depend on the inclusion of the social and behavioral sciences to advance knowledge in the physical, biological, computer and geological sciences, as well as in engineering. Significant challenges facing the nation, such as cybersecurity, require a fundamental understanding of human behavior and social interaction.”

Both of these portions of the reauthorization bill are addressed by amendments proposed by House Democrats. Edie Bernice Johnson of Texas, for example, has offered a 228-page substitute bill for the entire America COMPETES legislation; Katharine Clark and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon call for striking directorate by directorate funding; Julia Brownley of California would restore several line items being cut, including SBE; and Jared Polis of Colorado calls for restoring both the SBE and the Geosciences directorate funding (the latter directorate, which includes climate change-related study, faces a 12 percent haircut from what the president requested). However, given the political realities of a Republican majority, these amendments face steep uphill fights to be adopted into the larger bill.

Meanwhile, a bill that actually allocates money for the NSF – as opposed to authorizing it – does not include the directorate-by-directorate limitations. The appropriations bill for the departments of Commerce and Justice, science, and related agencies, known as CJS, allocates $5.98 billion for research across all the directorates, compared to the HR 1806’s $6.19 billion. Ultimately, the appropriations bill is more important than the authorization bill – there is not current NSF authorization bill, for example, but there was definitely a CJS bill keeping the lights on.

At present, neither the authorization bill nor the appropriations bills are scheduled for further mark-up. CJS must first go through the Appropriations Committee, and that may come as soon as next week. The authorization bill , which has passed its originating committee, was slated to be heard by the Rules Committee this week, but that date was postponed with no future date specified.

Meanwhile, NSF identified some other “contradictions” in HR1806:

  • The bill states that “many of the complex problems and challenges facing the Nation increasingly require the collaboration of multiple scientific disciplines” But NSF notes that another section cuts 18 percent from the requested budget of the Office of Integrative Activities, an office that focuses on funding interdisciplinary research across the disciplines.
  • The bill calls for “expanding the pool of scientists and engineers in the United States, including among segments of the populations that have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields,” yet it would cut the budget line for the Directorate for Education and Human Resources by 10 percent.
  • The bill underfunds the NSF’s Agency Operations and Award Management at a time the foundation is moving its headquarters. HR 1806 authorizes $325 million, the same as the current year allocation, although the president requested $354 million.
  • While emphasizing the value of international collaboration, the bill would reduce the budget of the Office of International Science and Engineering by 25 percent.

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