FY22 Budget Outlook: National Science Foundation

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Publication date: 
October 20, 2021
Number: 
93

House and Senate appropriators both propose to increase the National Science Foundation’s annual budget by more than 10% for fiscal year 2022 and endorse the Biden administration’s request to create a new directorate in the agency.

Under the appropriations legislation advanced by the House and Senate, the current $8.5 billion annual budget of the National Science Foundation would surge by about $1 billion in fiscal year 2022, which is short of the $1.7 billion increase the Biden administration requested. The Senate’s bill, released this week, seeks a 12% overall budget increase for NSF, while the counterpart bill the House passed this summer proposes a 14% increase.

Both bills support the proposal to create a new, technology-focused NSF directorate, which has received widespread bipartisan support. However, the agency’s overall topline could still be adjusted significantly downward, potentially at the directorate’s expense. Democrats crafted the spending proposals absent an agreement on limits on overall federal spending for the year, and Republicans have indicated they will not accept the size of the spending increases proposed for nondefense programs.

The bills are accompanied by explanatory reports from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees that contain policy direction for selected NSF programs. Highlights from the reports are summarized below, and summary figures are available in FYI's Federal Science Budget Tracker.

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FY22 Budget Proposals: National Science Foundation

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Technology directorate gains traction

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees both explicitly endorse NSF’s request to establish a “Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships” (TIP). The Senate report states,

The committee recognizes NSF’s critical role in driving U.S. scientific and technological innovation. This role is not limited to supporting basic research as NSF also helps accelerate translation of fundamental discoveries into technologies and products that improve our way of life. Therefore, the committee supports the new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships … that builds upon and consolidates existing NSF programs.

TIP serves as a cross-cutting platform to advance science and engineering research leading to breakthrough technologies, to find solutions to national and societal challenges, to strengthen U.S. global competitiveness, and to provide training opportunities for the development of a diverse STEM workforce.

The report directs NSF to allocate up to $865 million for the directorate in its first year, matching the agency’s proposed level, while the House report does not specify an amount. NSF stated in its budget request that $500 million of the total would be new funding and the remainder would come from programs currently housed in other parts of NSF, primarily the Engineering Directorate.

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A graphic used by NSF to depict how the proposed directorate would foster the interplay between exploratory research and technology commercialization.

(Image credit – NSF)

Of the new money, NSF requested that $200 million go toward creating up to 20 “Regional Innovation Accelerators,” each funded at $10 million per year over 10 years. The Senate report directs NSF to allocate up to $200 million for the program and to issue at least 20% of the accelerator awards to institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions, which are states and territories that have historically received a small share of NSF grant funding.

Congress is still debating legislation that would formally authorize the directorate and define its role in statute. The Senate-passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act would instruct the directorate to focus on advancing a set of 10 “key technology focus areas,” whereas the House-passed NSF for the Future Act would instruct it to address various “societal challenges” in addition to advancing critical technologies. Backers of the House bill have stated they believe NSF’s proposed structure for the directorate is well-aligned with their vision.

Cross-agency research priorities

The House and Senate bills both propose to increase NSF’s Research and Related Activities account from $6.9 billion to just under $7.7 billion, short of the $8.1 billion requested. The account funds NSF’s existing research directorates and is the proposed home for the TIP directorate.

Justifying the large increase, the Senate report states,

At current investment levels, NSF is not meeting the needs of our researchers and innovators. In 2010, the National Science Foundation funded more than 12,500 research proposals. By 2020, that number had fallen to fewer than 12,200. The agency has a low proposal acceptance rate of 28%, meaning that a lot of good ideas — and therefore potentially new technology or industries — lack necessary funding to be developed. On average, NSF grants provide less than $200,000 over about three years, not long enough for a graduate student to complete a doctorate degree.

In order to fully unleash domestic innovation potential, experts recommend doubling the amount of awards, increasing the duration by at least a year, and increasing the number of proposals funded. This bill helps achieve those goals.

The language alludes to NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan’s testimony before appropriators in April, when he endorsed an increase in the size and duration of grants.

The Senate report also expresses support for NSF’s goal of expanding the “geography of innovation,” a phrase the agency has used in promoting certain initiatives, such as its efforts to create artificial intelligence research institutes across the country. In support of this goal, the report directs NSF to describe in detail how it will help “emerging research institutions, institutions in EPSCoR States, and Minority Serving Institutions” take on leadership roles in major grant awards, such as “Science and Technology Centers, Engineering Research Centers, Mid-Scale Infrastructure Centers, Artificial Intelligence Centers, and other recurring or new center-level opportunities.”

For the EPSCoR program specifically, the Senate report directs NSF to increase its budget by at least 20% to $240 million, matching the requested level, while the House report specifies a minimum budget of $227 million.

Addressing other cross-agency priorities, the House report directs NSF to allocate $3.1 billion in total for “advanced manufacturing, advanced wireless, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, clean energy technology, microelectronics and semiconductors, quantum information science, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.” NSF requested substantial budget increases for each of these eight areas, seeking $3.3 billion overall.

For quantum information science specifically, the House directs NSF to allocate up to $255 million while the Senate specifies $260 million, up from the current level of $210 million. For climate and clean energy research programs, the House explicitly matches NSF’s request to increase their overall funding from $855 million to $1.2 billion.

Outside the appropriations bills, Democrats on the House Science Committee have proposed using a special partisan spending package under development to add $7.6 billion to NSF’s budget for research and education programs, spread across 10 years. Among the permitted uses of the funds are “use-inspired and translational research and development awards, entrepreneurial education, and technology transfer activities.” Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has more directly suggested the package should fund NSF’s new directorate.

However, funding for NSF could potentially be cut from the package as Democrats work to allay the objections to the legislation’s overall pricetag from lawmakers such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Democrats hope to pass the package using Congress’ budget reconciliation process, which requires them to secure approval of all 50 Senate Democrats.

Research infrastructure

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The Commissioning Camera in the integration hall for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

(Image credit – Rubin Observatory / NSF / AURA)

Both of the ordinary appropriations bills match NSF’s request to increase funding for the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account by $8 million to $249 million. Most of the increase would go toward addressing pandemic-related disruptions to the construction of Regional Class Research Vessels.

The account is also funding upgrades to particle detectors at the Large Hadron Collider, construction of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, and improvements to facilities in Antarctica. NSF reported in its budget request that each will incur major cost increases and schedule delays due to the pandemic, but the agency did not seek additional money for fiscal year 2022 since it is still reevaluating the projects’ budget profiles.

Addressing this issue, the Senate Appropriations Committee states that it “looks forward to working with NSF to understand the impact of extended construction shutdowns on the cost and execution of these large projects and encourages NSF and the National Science Board to continue planning and budgeting for the next generation of major facilities needed to ensure the United States maintains its scientific leadership.”

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee repeats language from prior years stating it is “concerned about NSF’s planning for the construction and development of the next-generation of competitive large-scale facilities to support NSF-funded science disciplines, including ground-based telescopes.” Accordingly, it encourages NSF to create a “prioritized list of large-scale facilities requested by NSF-supported science disciplines.”

The House Science Committee has proposed allocating $3.4 billion over 10 years in the partisan reconciliation bill for research infrastructure, including equipment, mid-scale infrastructure, Antarctic infrastructure modernization, and major construction projects. Of the total, $1 billion would be for infrastructure located at academic institutions, of which $300 million would be specifically for Minority Serving Institutions.

Education programs

The Senate’s ordinary appropriations bill proposes roughly level funding of $1.1 billion for NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, while the House bill nearly matches the agency’s request for a 16% increase to $1.3 billion.

Both reports specify large budget increases for programs supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic Serving Institutions. They also meet NSF’s request to more than double the budget of its $20 million INCLUDES program, which aims to scale up successful strategies for increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

The Senate report explicitly endorses NSF’s request to increase the budget for its flagship Graduate Research Fellowship Program by 12% to $319 million. NSF has stated the increase would permit the program to increase its annual number of fellowship awards from 2,000 to 2,500.

Agency operations and oversight

The Senate bill would increase the account that funds agency operations and award management by 20%, while the House bill would only provide a 4% increase. NSF requested a 25% increase for the account, which is currently funded at $375 million, to cover staffing costs for new activities such as the TIP directorate and to alleviate longstanding pressures on the agency’s base operations.

Both the House and Senate bills match NSF’s request to increase funding for its Office of Inspector General by 14% to $20 million. NSF has proposed that a portion of the funds go toward hiring five new staff members to support its growing portfolio of research security investigations.

About the author

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mambrose [at] aip.org
+1 301-209-3095

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