The House Science Committee’s Research Subcommittee held an April 17 hearing to review the Administration’s FY 2014 Budget Request for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Members heard from Cora Marrett, Acting Director of the National Science Foundation and Dan Arvizu, Chairman of the National Science Board. The hearing focused on the priority investments for the agency and how the NSF prioritizes its support for science and engineering. Also discussed at the hearing was the President’s budget proposal to consolidate federal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs within the NSF, Department of Education and Smithsonian Institution.
Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) opened the hearing stating that “we must now focus on answering what is the appropriate role of the Federal government in funding scientific research?” He was concerned about whether specific studies at the National Science Foundation deserved to be funded. “Our charge is to ensure the American taxpayer is getting value for their hard earned dollars that we spend on research through the NSF. I strongly support NSF funding in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, cybersecurity and STEM education.” While members of this subcommittee typically agree on funding for mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, this hearing highlighted that there is disagreement on funding for some social science research.
Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) agreed that “America faces a serious debt threat…. Solving this problem will require some budget cuts. But I hope that going forward we can make these cuts in a smart way that addresses the various near-term and long-term challenges that our nation faces.” He also discussed priority setting highlighting that “sometimes [it] means increasing investments in areas that deliver real returns for taxpayers by improving our quality of life, protecting our population from natural and man-made threats, and ensuring our economic competitiveness.” On the subject of the FY 2014 budget request, Lipinski was pleased about the proposed funding increases for the I-Corps program, INSPIRE program to support interdisciplinary research, and with the continued emphasis on advanced manufacturing within the President’s budget. He was interested to hear more details about the proposed STEM education consolidation.
Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) spoke about his interest to maximize the return on investment for taxpayer-funded research. On the issue of prioritization, Smith stated “I do not think that we should pick winners and losers by micromanaging grant decisions at the NSF. It is the responsibility of the professionals at the NSF to exercise their best judgment and ensure that only proposals that benefit the taxpayer get funded. It is Congress’s job to ensure accountability and transparency for the American taxpayer.” He questioned how the Committee could “avoid micromanaging but achieve accountability at the National Science Foundation” and also how Congress can “ensure an environment where the creativity and determination of our very best scientists is encouraged.”
In her testimony, Marrett acknowledged that the NSF has “made difficult choices to reduce or eliminate lower priority programs, and seized opportunities to leverage resources for maximum impact.” She highlighted that “this request ensures the health of fundamental science and engineering across all disciplines, primarily through merit reviewed awards to researchers at colleges and universities throughout the country.” Regarding the FY 2014 budget priorities, Marrett stated that “the investments that form this budget request flow from the goals established in the agency’s strategic plan: Transform the Frontiers, Innovate for Society, and Perform as a Model Organization.” She addressed each of the six priorities and discussed how they relate to NSF initiatives, commercialization of technology, and ongoing research at the agency.
The NSF identified six priority investments, which encompass roughly 11 percent of the FY 2014 budget:
- Cyber-enabled Materials, Manufacturing, and Smart Systems
- Cyber-infrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science, Engineering, and Education
- NSF Innovation Corps
- Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education
- Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability
- Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace
Marrett also addressed three activities to improve program effectiveness and efficiency that were emphasized in the FY 2014 request: ensuring public access, establishing an evaluation capacity, and improving the operational execution of the merit review process. On the issue of public access, Marrett stated:
“This initiative reflects the Administration and NSF priority to make government more open and accessible by improving public access to NSF-funded research. In FY 2014, NSF establishes a policy framework that will build on and refine existing technology to track research products, allow investigators and awardees to make their products known and available, and allow the general public, researchers, and policy makers to locate and make use of those products. This effort includes establishing a publicly-accessible repository for publications, leveraging existing federal infrastructure to the maximum extent possible.”
On the issue of the merit review process, Marrett stated:
“Improving the operational execution of the Merit Review Process … [is] an essential step to address the extraordinary pressures the Foundation faces due to a growing number of proposals and intense competition for NSF funding. The FY 2014 Request will support a multi-year effort to improve major aspects of this process, including use of virtual meeting technologies for merit review; technological support for the management of reviewers and reviews; increased automation of the preliminary processing of proposals; and demand management.”
Arvizu spoke about how the NSF has seeded the US innovation ecosystem by funding “transformative research projects across all fields of science and engineering.” He stated that the business sector funds over 60 percent of US research and development but only 5 percent of that funding is for basic research. He asked the Science Committee for support of full funding of the Agency Operating and Award Management account stressing that the agency responds to 78 percent of proposals within the first 6 months of receiving them. The proposed increase would help NSF process proposals more effectively.
Arvizu also commented on the FY 2013 continued resolution stating that “the final FY 13 Continuing Resolution restricted what NSF could fund in political science. The NSF and the National Science Board will fully comply with the law, however we would like to raise concerns about how these structures can undermine the merit review process and the progress of science. While we understand that it is Congress’s responsibility to set spending priorities, the Board believes that legislatively imposing restrictions on a class of research will not serve the national interest.”
Questions from Bucshon focused on the NSF’s BRAIN Initiative, avoiding duplication of funding for clean energy research, and the role of private sector involvement in research and development. Lipinski asked Marrett about funding for social, behavioral and economic sciences, specifically asking her to comment on the NSF’s funding for this research. Marrett responded by underscoring that the $259 million spent on the social, behavioral and economic science is a relatively small percentage of the overall NSF budget and that the research funded uses a systematic approach that is theoretically driven.