There was a striking contrast in tone between yesterday’s House Science Committee hearing on the Administration’s FY 2015 S&T budget request and this morning’s hearing before House appropriators on the National Science Foundation request. As has long been the case, appropriators praised the foundation, recognizing its important role in supporting basic research to sustain America’s scientific leadership and economic progress.
“The subcommittee is a big supporter of basic research” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee as he opened the 1.5 hour long hearing. Wolf, who is retiring at the end of this session of Congress, noted that the subcommittee has voted to increase NSF funding every year during the last decade. Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) agreed with Wolf’s sentiments, as did every other appropriator at today’s hearing. A striking characteristic of this subcommittee is its bipartisan nature, reflected by the absence of partisan strife or discourse, despite the widely divergent political inclinations of its members.
The appropriators are concerned about challenges to U.S. scientific leadership from other countries, particularly China. “I am worried that our nation is facing decline,” said Wolf to Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett. Marrett and National Science Board Chairman Dan Arvizu assured the subcommittee that the U.S. retains its scientific preeminence, spending more than twice as much as China in total (public and private) R&D. Of concern, they both said, was the rate of increase of China’s investment, Arvizu warning “they are catching up.” One private study estimates China could surpass the U.S. in total R&D spending by 2022. This concern was repeatedly raised by the appropriators throughout the hearing.
The Obama Administration requested a 1.2 percent increase in total NSF funding for FY 2015. The request for its Education and Human Resources Directorate would increase 5.1 percent, while funding for Research and Related Activities would decline slightly. Why is STEM education the highest priority Wolf asked Marrett. She explained that much of the increase was for the foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program which would add 2,000 more positions and increase fellowship stipends in FY 2015. (See PDF page 4 here). Research and Related Activities funding would decline as research matures in several areas, she said. The need to increase opportunities for young researchers was mentioned by other appropriators, including Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD).
Citing the impact of inflation and the level of the foundation’s request, Wolf asked if the number of funded grants would drop in FY 2015. Marrett replied that NSF receives 51,000 proposals every year, awarding about 11,000 grants. “There will be some drop,” she said, adding that there would “not be dramatic changes” as the foundation maneuvers under the 2015 budget cap that increases overall discretionary spending by 0.2 percent over this year.
A major interest of Ranking Member Fattah is neurological research and how advances in this field through programs such as the Administration’s BRAIN Initiative could help the approximately one billion people throughout the world who are affected by various disorders. Fattah advocated close cooperation with other nations conducting this research.
There was only a little discussion about the foundation’s grant making process. Wolf mentioned concerns that have been voiced about “wasteful grants” and wanted to know what steps the foundation was taking to improve accountability. He seemed satisfied with Marrett’s description of new transparency and accountability procedures being instituted, including placing responsibility for grants at all levels throughout the foundation. Special attention will be given, she added, to titles and abstracts to make grants more understandable to the general public. “There is no spin to this,” she assured the subcommittee. Fattah warned against what he called a dumbing down of the process, and called on his colleagues to make a strong case for the importance of basic research as a worthy investment in this tight federal budget environment.
Wolf also mentioned concerns that have been raised about outsized salaries paid to temporary personnel at the foundation. He was satisfied with Marrett’s response about controlling travel costs and the foundation’s attempt to get home institutions to participate in a cost-sharing arrangement. Bringing in outside personnel is very important to NSF she said, and they do not want to lose this important component of how the foundation does its work.
Questions were also asked about STEM education. The appropriators were very concerned about the performance of U.S. students and asked about foundation programs to publicize K-12 best practices to schools. Marrett discussed seven workshops that were held across the nation and the popularity of a foundation website for teachers. She also discussed NSF’s role going forward in facilitating coordination and discussion about federal STEM programs, adding that no money from other programs would be shifted to the foundation. There was also discussion about NSF program to support Hispanic students in STEM fields by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL).
“We are very supportive of the foundation and its work,” said Fattah, as was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) who declared “I support your work.” Reiterating this point was Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who told Marrett that he would work with the subcommittee to ensure that the foundation gets the resources that it needs. Today’s hearing was a positive step in the foundation’s FY 2015 appropriations cycle and for its new Director, France Cordova who was confirmed by the Senate two weeks ago and who will start her new position next week.