'Big Ideas' Create Big Budget Dilemma for NSF

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Publication date: 
27 June 2017

The National Science Foundation is mulling how aggressively to pursue its 10 big ideas for future investment, which were crafted to justify budget increases but face an uncertain future in the current budget climate.

Although lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed strong support for the National Science Foundation in the face of the 11 percent proposed cut for fiscal year 2018, agency leaders may face tough choices even if Congress provides significantly more than the request.

Discussion at the June meeting of the advisory committee for NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate revealed that a topic high on the mind of agency leaders is how aggressively to pursue its 10 big ideas for future investment in fiscal year 2018 and beyond given the current budget climate.


NSF uses this graphic to illustrate the 10 big ideas.

(Image credit - NSF)

Big ideas shaped FY18 budget request

Jim Ulvestad, acting head of the MPS Directorate, described the process NSF used to develop the fiscal year 2018 request. The overarching prioritization principles NSF leadership settled on are: continue to fund all science and engineering disciplines, support early career researchers and cross disciplinary programs, protect “core” research, roll back “accretions” (programs scaled up substantially since 2008), and make “strategic and prioritized reductions” within directorates.

Ulvestad explained that NSF used a bottom-up approach to make decisions on cuts, giving each directorate given control over how to propose implementing them. He also said that NSF received no prioritization instructions from the Trump transition team.

Describing how the big ideas impacted the MPS Directorate’s budget request, Ulvestad said, “In this type of budget scenario, we really can’t kick off some huge spending on one of those big ideas, but what we tried to do is prioritize programs leading to them.”

NSF Director France Córdova described how the big ideas shaped the overall budget request in her testimony at a June 7 appropriations hearing:

NSF remains firmly committed to the Big Ideas, which are at different levels of readiness. The FY 2018 Budget Request to Congress details a variety of activities related to the Big Ideas that (1) continue the investment in developing the research foundations, including piloting select new programs; (2) invest in building capacity in the research community; and (3) invest in the community-wide visioning and planning that will be crucial for effective implementation in the future.

There are no funding totals attributed to the ideas in the budget request, with the notable exception of the INCLUDES program, NSF’s new initiative to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in STEM careers. NSF requests just under $15 million for the program, a 6.5 percent increase over the fiscal year 2016 level. However, the document provides examples of how each of the ideas shaped the agencies’ decisions.

The MPS chapter of the request cites the Material Research Division’s prospective renewal of the Center for Integrated Quantum Materials and the Physics Division’s emphasis on Quantum Information Science as efforts tied to the Quantum Leap Big Idea. It also explains that the Physics and Astronomy Divisions are “building the foundation for the Windows on the Universe Big Idea by continuing to invest in large facilities and research awards that make use of information carried by electromagnetic waves, particles, and gravitational waves.”

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), now famous for its detection of gravitational waves last year and a frontrunner for this year’s Nobel Prize, is an example of a facility closely tied to the Windows on the Universe idea, which touts the emerging era of “multi-messenger” astrophysics. The budget spares LIGO from cuts, requesting $39.4 million for the facility, equal to the amount provided in fiscal year 2016.

NSF faces investment and divestment dilemmas

“How aggressively do we pursue the big ideas in the context of a limited budget, and what are we willing to give up to do so?” That is among the strategic questions NSF is grappling with, Ulvestad said. Asked what NSF would do if it receives more money than the fiscal year 2018 request, he outlined one dilemma:

One strategy is just to restore at some level some of the programs that we’ve reduced in the request. Another strategy is just to say, ‘well we’ve already made the tough decision to reduce those programs, let’s take that money and instead throw it into one of the big ideas.’ And we have discussed that tradeoff within the directorate at a fair amount of length. … [The discussion] is primarily driven from inside, but with the recognition of what the community has told us their priorities are on the outside.

Ulvestad also noted that at a retreat the following week, agency leaders would discuss whether or not the big ideas would be a “major part” of the fiscal year 2019 budget request.

During their discussion with Córdova, the advisory committee asked for her view on how “proactive” NSF should be in pursuing the big ideas in the current budget climate.

“We always try to make room for new things no matter what budget we have and try to divest ourselves, with the community’s input, of things that are older, not because they aren’t good or important for somebody to do, but because we have to be on the new frontier,” Córdova replied. “So what we’ve been explaining to Congress is that with whatever budget we have we are going to be seeding these big ideas.”

Juan de Pablo, chair of the advisory committee and a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, commented on how the budget requests an increase for the INCLUDES program. “We thought that it was admirable that in a time of cuts this program is being preserved,” he remarked, adding “It’s too easy in a time of cuts to pay less attention to issues of diversity. Perhaps it’s time for NSF to double down on this commitment.”

Córdova noted her deep personal involvement in the program and her conviction of its importance. “If we don’t move the needle here, we’re not going to be the nation that we want to be,” she said.

The advisory committee also expressed its general support for NSF making the tough decisions required to free up resources for new initiatives. In response, Córdova highlighted the array of factors that make it difficult for NSF to divest from facilities. She emphasized that the “broader impacts” criterion NSF uses when making funding decisions leads the agency to make different choices than if it only used its “intellectual merit” criterion.

She gave the example of how several facilities NSF is reducing support for, including the Arecibo and Green Bank Observatories, are in regions that are part of the EPSCoR program, which aims to increase the research competitiveness of states or territories that garner significantly less federal R&D funding than others.

“EPSCoR is a program that Congress loves, and they should love it, because it’s trying to bring out the capability, the capacity of the entire nation and not just a few hotspots of activity,” Córdova said. She later continued, “You have to think about what you’re doing in a broader sense rather than just concentrating on the scientific capability. [These facilities] also have a large impact on science outreach and education and all the rest of it. That’s why it’s important for us to find partners who will take over some of these facilities when we’re ready to close them down because of intellectual merit.”

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