Full Senate Panel Approves $7.5B NSF Budget for 2017

Thad Cochrane
Mississippi Republican Thad Cochrane is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee today approved a $7.51 billion budget for the National Science Foundation in the coming fiscal year, part of a larger package of appropriations covered in the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2017.

The bill is essentially the same as that passed Tuesday by the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) subcommittee of the full Appropriations Committee, which Social Science Space reported in greater detail here. The $56.3 billion CJS appropriation is $563 million above the current year’s budget and $1.6 billion more than what President Barack Obama had requested (although it’s actually $183 million below the president’s budget request, explained committee chair Thad Cochran, when some accounting adjustments are factored in).

The action is only a waystop for National Science Foundation (NSF) budget, since the House of Representatives has yet to act on its version of the bill (and may not be in danger of doing so soon), and differences between the bills would need to be worked out and approved in both legislative chambers before the final version is presented to the president to approve. At this point, the path has been relatively free of obstacles; the ranking Democrat on the committee, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, noted this bill and another on transportation funding were free of “poison pills riders” that would invite a presidential veto.

A report that accompanies the bill does raise one concern for the social and behavioral science community, however. In language that explains that the committee supports the agency’s peer review process for deciding on what research its experts feel should be funded, the legislators added, “As part of the peer review process, NSF should include criteria that evaluates how a proposal will advance our Nation’s national security and economic interests, as well as promote the progress of science and innovation in the United States.” This ‘national interest’ clause echoes a bill currently in the House of Representatives that has drawn a skeptical response from scientists (and officials in the White House) who fear that the provision will be used down the line to stymie funding for basic research where the payoff isn’t instantaneous.

The NSF is by far the largest government funding for academic social and behavioral science research in the United States, and so the social science community pays particular attention to the fate of its budget. The amount the Appropriations Committee approved is roughly the same as the amount enacted for the current fiscal year.

It is less than the amount requested by the NSF itself through the president’s budget request. NSF had requested $8 billion, although $400 million of that was a special extra request for research funding that was unlikely to pass. While this Senate budget as a result is less than requested, it also doesn’t include efforts to impose discipline-based spending constraints on NSF that were seen in the House version of last year’s bill. Those constraints would have limited spending for social and behavioral science and for geosciences.

Also of interest to social scientists, the CJS bill would fund the Bureau of the Census at $1.5 billion, which is $148 million more than what was enacted in the current fiscal year but below President Obama’s request for $1.63 billion to start gearing up for the next decennial survey in 2020.

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