House Considers Flat Budget for NSF

Pitted between science advocates who want to see the federal government spend dramatically more on basic research, and a president who has called for spending dramatically less, the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations instead occupied a middle ground – copying last year’s budget.

The committee started marking up the 2018 fiscal year commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill Thursday morning. This is an annual exercise but one well behind the traditional timetable for having the new budget. The CJS bill will be one of 12 pieces of legislation making up that budget, which ideally would be in place when the fiscal year begins on October 1. (This year’s delay was largely abetted by the Trump administration not producing its budget request, the legal start of the budgeting process, until May.) The committee sent the CJS bill to the full House in an early evening party-line vote, 31-21.

Under the House’s budget-building system, various federal science and science-related agencies – the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy – are funded through the same legislation that funds the departments of Commerce and Justice. The current CJS bill would appropriate $53.9 billion for all those agencies, down $2.6 billion from what was authorized last year.

Of that, NSF would receive $7.4 billion, with the lion’s share of that, $6.034 billion, going to pay for research and related activities. That amount for research is $672 million more than what the administration had requested and equivalent to the current fiscal year’s appropriated amount. To give a sense of the impact of the Executive Branch cut, the amount was $840.98 million less than what was actually spent in  FY 2016 — a reduction of 11.2 percent.

The bill also rejects “some of the Trump administration’s worst ideas,” as ranking Democrat José Serrano of New York put it. Serrano specifically noted that bill did not try “picking winners and losers” in science funding by making political decisions on specific funding allocations for specific NSF directorates, which inevitably focuses on cutting money for social and geoscience.

In a report that accompanied the CJS bill, the committee explained that it rejected the Trump numbers because “the Committee believes that strategic investments in the physical science areas are vitally important for the United States to remain the global leader in innovation, productivity, economic growth, and good-paying jobs for the future.” Such reports are written by the majority party, which makes this declaration of independence particularly striking.

The research budget at NSF is of huge import for U.S. academic social and behavioral scientists. While grants for social, behavioral and economic research are a small piece (around 5 percent) of the total research allocation, that money pays for more than half of the academic social science research in the United States.

The full NSF budget is $132 million lower than the appropriated amount of the year before. The chair of the Appropriations CJS subcommittee, Texas Republican John Culberson, explained that that’s the cost of a research vessel which, while not in the current budget, may be restored when the House bill is reconciled with a Senate version in a future conference committee. (To better understand the federal budget process, please see the graphic.)

While the status quo NSF budget could be seen as a win for science given the proposed cuts from Trump, science advocates such as the Consortium of Social Science Associations, or COSSA, have been talking up a budget of $8 billion. That was the goal of the bipartisan America COMPETES Act of 2010, which called for hitting that milestone in 2013. In a letter to the CJS subcommittee dated May 11, Wendy Naus, the executive director of COSSA, made the current ask explicit: “For fiscal year (FY) 2018, COSSA urges the Committee to appropriate $8 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), sufficient funding to the Census Bureau, $40 million for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and $48 million for the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

That ask did make it to the committee floor this morning. Congressman David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, introduced to the bill that would have increased the research budget by $604 million, and pushed NSF’s total budget to north of $8 billion.

But Price’s amendment did not include an ‘offset’ – i.e. saving a dollar elsewhere for each dollar of new spending sought – for this request. While calling such offsets “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Price knew such a request was dead-on-arrival and so withdrew his amendment even as he made it. His action, he explained, was meant to draw attention to the need for more research spending, and he hoped his apparently quixotic motion might actually influence the next stage of the budget conversation.

Culberson seemed in broad agreement with his cross-aisle colleague’s aims, and promised “as we get a broader budget agreement … if there’s additional funds, NSF is at top of my list.”

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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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