Content Analysis Illustrates What Congress Wants from the NSF Today

It’s a simple equation: Congress writes the legislation that funds the National Science Foundation. Consequently, researchers who seek support from the National Science Foundation should understand Congress’ view of the agency.

New research published in Science Advances uses text analysis to examine statements made by any member of Congress in the Congressional Record about the NSF during a 22-year period.

Political scientist (and assistant director of the National Science Foundation) Arthur “Skip” Lupia, researcher Stuart Soroka and PhD student Alison Beatty conducted this study to track the changing influence that NSF funding has had on contemporary events in education, technology and student life. Their findings identify a series of patterns in legislators’ goals and concerns and highlight partisan differences that expanded and varied over time. The takeaway? Due to increased competition in information marketplaces, simply citing the benefits of science may not be enough to generate political support for science funding.

So what do members of Congress want from the NSF today?

The NSF is responsible for roughly 25 percent of all federally supported fundamental research. This includes about 83 percent of the federal funding for computer science research and two-thirds of basic research in the social and behavioral sciences at U.S. academic institutions. To fund any portfolio of scientific activities at the NSF, majority support on the floor of the House of Representatives and in key House committees is required. The Senate’s assent is also needed. Through these, Congress makes decisions about NSF’s funding levels and about its discretion in using those funds.  

The researchers applied content analysis on all remarks made from 1995 to 2018 to identify the words that most frequently occur in sentences with “NSF” or “National Science Foundation.” In most congressional sessions, there were between 200 and 300 discussions that touched on the NSF. Republicans and Democrats tend to express positive sentiment when discussing the NSF. However, over time, there were more questions asked by Republicans about accountability and a shift among Democrats from specific programmatic words to more general and technology-related terms. Moreover, Republicans in the early part of the study tend to use many of the words that Democrats used in the latter years, with the shift to accountability-related words and topics coming more recently.

Breaking their data down by year groups – 1995 to 2006 and 2007 to 2018 — researchers found a divide in words most associated with the first time period and those associated with the second. This relays a sense of how discussions have changed over time and suggests there has been an increased focus on education and innovation more recently. The research also indicates an overlap in the 20 most common words used by each party, suggesting that members of Congress tend to adopt common narrative structures when discussing the NSF. In fact, the two parties share an extensive core of words, including ‘technology’, ‘health’, and ‘budget’.

NSF director with members of Congress
Then-NSF Director France Cordova with the Illinois Congressional Delegation in 2016.

Taking this data into account, scientists and scientific organizations that desire government support should identify the importance of language and the changes it has had over time. The competitive funding environments today involve more social interests appealing for greater public funding. Consequently, researchers need to adapt to an increasingly saturated funding environment. Understanding how language surrounding the NSF has changed can be just the tool they need to secure financial support.

Throughout the 22-year period, the NSF has had significant and continuous bipartisan support within Congress. Nonetheless, appeals to support science funding that are responsive and accountable to the core values that unite the two major parties will provide greater leverage in long-lasting requests of Congressional support. Science portfolios that clearly serve broad public interests are important for government accountability and the legislative process. Researchers should also remember that prospective supporters of a funding plan need to persuade pivotal stakeholders that proposals will generate significant and distinctive net benefits to their key constituents. As researchers go up against more competitors seeking support, they can maintain positive relations knowing how language and interaction regarding the NSF have developed.


For more information on the National Science Foundation’s budget and performance, visit https://www.nsf.gov/about/performance/.

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Kenalyn Ang

Kenalyn Ang is the Social Science Communications Intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Kenalyn is interested in all things related to narrative communication. Her research focuses on identity-making and representation through the written word, as well as through creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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