Key House Appropriator Backs NSF Physical Sciences Boost

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Publication date: 
21 September 2017

During floor debate on the House’s omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018, Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) supported a successful amendment by Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) to shift $30.2 million to physical and biological sciences research at the National Science Foundation from other agency activities. Although a small amount, Culberson’s support for the amendment indicates he is sympathetic to Smith’s broader push to prioritize the physical sciences.


House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Culberson (R-TX), left, and House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX).

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On Sept. 14, the House passed a $1.2 trillion omnibus appropriations bill on a vote of 211 to 198. The legislation, which would fund the federal government through the end of fiscal year 2018, incorporates the eight remaining annual spending bills alongside four the House passed in a security-focused minibus bill this July.

During floor debate on the bill, Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) sponsored an amendment to shift $30.2 million to physical and biological sciences research at the National Science Foundation from other NSF accounts. The amendment, which the House agreed to by a voice vote, was notably also supported by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

As the House bill does not specify funding for individual NSF research directorates, any specific guidance as a result of Smith’s amendment will be determined in the conference committee report accompanying the final legislation negotiated between the two chambers. The amendment thus did not change any bill language but established the House’s intent.

Smith’s amendment would increase funding for NSF’s physical and biological sciences research by an amount equal to 0.5 percent of the current funding level for the agency’s $6 billion Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account, which supports its six research directorates. According to Smith, the amendment would not increase overall funding levels for the NSF research account but rather would require the foundation to “adjust other areas of spending accordingly.” Smith justified the amendment by arguing it would fund “the basic research that produces the scientific breakthroughs that fuel technological innovation, new industries, economic growth, and good jobs.”

Prioritizing basic research in the physical sciences is part of the Science Committee majority’s formal agenda for fiscal year 2018. One item of that agenda is to require that 70 percent of NSF’s research funds be allocated among four directorates: the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Computer & Information Sciences & Engineering, Biological Sciences, and Engineering Directorates.

Culberson offered full-throated support for Smith’s amendment, pledging that he “will fight for it in conference [with the Senate].”  The report accompanying the appropriations bill for NSF that Culberson’s subcommittee wrote earlier this year also signaled that he may be receptive to such a prioritization of research funding, as it emphasizes “strategic investments in the physical science areas as vitally important.”

House appropriators will have to negotiate with their Senate counterparts during conference committee on whether to include language favoring funding for biological and physical sciences research in the final agreement.

Culberson opposes boost for computer sciences, defers to NSF

Culberson’s support for the Smith amendment is in some tension with his previously articulated stance of deferring to NSF on how to allocate its R&RA account among its six research directorates. Although Smith’s amendment does not specify which directorates would receive the extra money, some may stand to benefit more than others.

It also stands in contrast with his stated reasons for opposition to another amendment offered by Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) to increase funding for CISE by $18 million, or 2 percent over its current funding level. Rosen said the increase would allow CISE “to keep up with year-over-year inflation and fund the same number of grants as previous years” to “remain globally competitive in computer science and engineering.”

Culberson said his opposition to Rosen’s amendment was in part due to budgetary concerns, and that while he supports increasing funding levels for NSF and other federal science agencies, it has been an “extremely difficult budget year.” “Until the Congress comes to an overall budget agreement … we simply do not have additional funds, and we must live within our means,” explained Culberson. He further explained that in this case he supports letting NSF make directorate-level funding decisions, saying he “believe[s] it is important that we defer to the National Science Foundation to distribute any additional funds according to the highest priority needs identified by the scientific community and not designate them for a specific directorate.”

House omnibus spending bill dead-on-arrival in Senate

The House omnibus spending package is not expected to advance to the Senate. It exceeds the current caps on spending and would trigger across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration if Congress and the president are unable to reach a deal to raise the caps. Any revision to these caps, which were set by a 2011 budget control law, would require at least 60 votes in the Senate, necessitating at least some Democratic support.

Only one Democrat voted in favor of the bill, so it will likely not have enough support from Democrats in the Senate to receive the 60 votes needed to pass.

Congress has to negotiate a final agreement or an additional stopgap spending measure before Dec. 8, when the recently enacted three-month extension will expire. Moving forward, Republican lawmakers will need to seek out Democratic support to achieve final passage.

Other amendments of note

Among a number of successful amendments of note to the physical sciences are:

  • Several amendments sponsored by Dan Lipinski (D-IL) that would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maintain funding for National Weather Service staff and programs, including $1.2 million to maintain staff levels and activities at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and $10.1 million to maintain Information Technology Officer (ITO) positions in weather forecast offices. The Trump administration has proposed to consolidate the Climate Prediction Center and Weather Prediction Center within the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and decrease the number of ITOs through a phased consolidation to increase efficiencies.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) that would direct $10 million for NOAA to complete build-out and increase electrical capacity for the Environmental Security Computing Center in Fairmont, West Virginia.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) that would increase funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program by $5 million, for a program total of $105 million in fiscal year 2018.

There were also a number of amendments of note submitted but were not made in order for floor consideration:

  • Several amendments sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) that would maintain funding for NOAA’s Climate Research program and the National Weather Service at fiscal year 2017 levels.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) that would increase funding for NOAA’s Climate Research Program by $24.3 million.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) that would direct NSF to determine Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) eligibility based on per capita funding.
  • Amendments offered by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) and Rep. Tom Reed (D-NY) that would increase funding for the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, also known as Manufacturing USA, by $20 million.
  • An amendment offered by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) that prevents funding from being made available for the National Climate Assessment.

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