Key House Appropriators Oppose Directorate-Level Funding for NSF

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Publication date: 
17 March 2016

After largely dismissing the president’s budget request, the chairman and ranking member of the House subcommittee in charge of National Science Foundation appropriations voiced both their strong support for the foundation and their opposition to allocating money at the research directorate level, with the chairman indicating his preference for making greater use of decadal surveys to decide on research priorities.

On March 16, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing to review the fiscal year 2017 budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in which the president proposes a 6.7 percent funding increase for the foundation. NSF Director France Córdova was the sole witness.

About $400 million of the increase would come via new mandatory funding as opposed to the typical discretionary funding. Without the mandatory money, NSF would only receive a 1.3 percent funding increase.

Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) kicked off the hearing by quickly and thoroughly dismissing the mandatory spending proposal, saying that it represents “speculative sources of funding for the future that are just simply not going to happen.” However, he then added that although the mandatory proposal makes the subcommittee’s job more difficult, the whole subcommittee is committed to strongly supporting NSF.

Similarly, Ranking Member Mike Honda (D-CA) referred to the budget request as “disappointing,” and said that the 1.3 percent increase in discretionary funding is not high enough.

Money aside, discussion in the hearing touched on most of the main science policy topics du jour relevant to NSF, including debates over what kinds of science are in the “national interest,” whether Congress should fund NSF at the directorate-level, how funding agencies should respond to sexual harassment by grantees, management of large facilities, the value of social and geosciences relative to other disciplines, the implications of increasing interdisciplinarity of science, and the importance of broadening participation of under-represented groups in STEM fields.

An ‘interest’ing discussion

In their opening statements, both Culberson and Honda congratulated NSF on its role in supporting the LIGO project which recently detected gravitational waves. Honda, however, went a step further than Culberson by implying that the detection may not have been possible if Congress had weighed in on which sciences are more important to the “national interest” — a statement similar to one made by House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in a recent hearing on the detection of gravitational waves.

Although he did not mention House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) “Scientific Research in the National Interest” bill by name, Honda undoubtedly was directing his comments in opposition to it, saying

This is why the NSF needs the freedom to invest across all the sciences without interference. It is critical that politics not be allowed to insert itself into the process and deem that some sciences are not in the national interest and therefore we will not invest in them. All science is in the national interest.

Culberson, who voted for Smith’s bill on the House floor, did not engage with this line of argument, although he did later ask Córdova how NSF has updated its grant policies in response to debates over the bill.

Córdova noted that NSF has made several changes to its grant policies, including adding language to the agency’s Grant Proposal Guide which stipulates that the proposal title and abstract must explain how the project “serves the national interest, as stated by NSF's mission: ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; or to secure the national defense.’”

She also highlighted that broader impacts language in the foundation’s funding solicitations closely matches eight of the ten “national interest” criteria laid out in Smith’s bill.

Culberson dismisses directorate-level funding, doubles down on decadals

Both Culberson and Honda noted their opposition to Congress allocating money to specific NSF directorates instead of simply providing a top-line appropriation, as has been the norm in recent history.

I think it’s important that we not insert political agendas from either end of the political spectrum,” said Culberson, immediately after dismissing the idea of directorate-level funding.

This dismissal perhaps represents a change of heart by Culberson because he has supported the idea in the recent past. Last appropriations cycle, his subcommittee approved a bill which specified that no less than 70 percent of NSF’s research funding be allocated to four of the foundation’s six research directorates: Mathematical & Physical Sciences, Computer & Information Science & Engineering, Biological Sciences, and Engineering. This language, which would have constrained funding for the Geosciences and Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences directorates, was removed from the final version of the bill.

The debate over directorate-level funding has attracted the attention of other members of Congress as well. In particular, Reps. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and David Price (D-NC) are currently circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to Culberson and Honda which urges them to oppose directorate-level funding. The text of the letter is included at the end of this article.

Nevertheless, Smith — Culberson’s equivalent on the authorization committee for NSF — remains determined to pursue directorate-level funding, as announced in a document outlining his committee’s priorities and goals for 2016.

In response to a question from Honda on how directorate-level “micromanagement” could impact NSF’s research prioritization process, Córdova suggested that such a funding approach would encourage scientists to lobby Congress instead of participating in current community-based prioritization processes:

Instead of the science community coming together with proposals and what’s of the highest priority from all the different disciplines, they would go directly to you and insist that their science was the highest priority, and it would be very unstable a way of funding science because…when [the committee membership] changes over and we have different people in the legislature, we could have ups and downs in funding that could make it very unstable to have consistent funding for science.

However, Culberson seemed to be not entirely satisfied with the current methods NSF uses to identify research priorities. He expressed “keen interest” in expanding NSF’s use of decadal surveys, which NASA makes extensive use of, as a means of communicating scientists’ research priorities to Congress:

 I’m very impressed with the work…the National Academies have done in their decadal surveys, and that’s why I included language in our 2016 bill to ensure that NASA follows the decadal recommendations… [The decadal surveys allow] us as members of Congress to recognize what the priorities are of the scientific community and their best objective judgement, and fund those priorities and make sure they’re carried out, as these discoveries, [like] the gravitational wave discovery, [can take] a couple of decades to achieve.

Córdova noted that NSF currently participates in some decadal surveys, such as the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, as well as various interagency working groups, however Culberson suggested that greater use of decadal surveys would provide a more “formal” process for setting research priorities.

He ended this line of argument by noting his related desire to prevent the White House from overly influencing the NSF budget, saying “I really want to cut the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] out of the loop for NASA and the National Science Foundation. I don’t think the bureaucratic bean counters at OMB should be substituting their judgement for the work that you do.”

Directorate-level funding Dear Colleague letter

The full text of the “Dear Colleague” letter by Reps. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and David Price (D-NC) referenced above is included below. The deadline for members of Congress to co-sign the letter is March 21.

Dear Chairman Culberson and Ranking Member Honda,

We are writing to request that the fiscal year 2017 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act reaffirm the National Science Foundation’s current practice of setting national scientific research priorities, investing across all disciplines of science, and using the merit review systems for determining which grant proposals to fund.

The Research and Related Activities account at the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds scientific discovery, workforce training, and state-of-the-art facilities that keep the U.S. ahead of our global scientific competitors.  These investments expand our knowledge base; train the next-generation scientific workforce; help bring new products to market; help us understand the world in which we live; and explore questions about how we as humans navigate our world.

In order to foster potentially transformative research that will benefit our economy, health, and national security, NSF should continue to support research and education across all science and engineering disciplines.  For this reason, we believe it is important that the House Committee on Appropriations preserve NSF’s ability to respond to unanticipated discoveries and insights, following the science wherever it may lead.  This flexibility requires that NSF’s appropriations not include arbitrary funding levels for its research directorates.  Instead, we urge that the NSF appropriation follow current practice — by appropriating funds only to the Research & Related Activities account — thereby leaving directorate funding decisions to experts at NSF with technical input from the scientific community, the National Academies, National Science Board, and other bodies.

We are hopeful that, to further ensure U.S. scientific pre-eminence and global competitiveness, the Committee will express support for NSF’s merit review process for selecting the most promising research within and across scientific fields of study, including the biological, computer, geo, mathematical, physical, social and behavioral sciences, and engineering.  The merit review system remains the best means for meeting national scientific priorities, fostering innovation, and determining which grant proposals to fund.

The NSF practices described above are the international gold standard and emulated by nations around the world because they are the best means to foster, evaluate, and invest in scientific research.  We hope the Committee will reaffirm these practices by refraining from including specific funding levels — either within the bill text or accompanying report — for individual NSF research directorates in the fiscal year 2017 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act.