Science Subcommittee Discusses FY 2016 NSF Budget, Social Science Funding

On February 26, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research Technology held an oversight hearing to discuss the fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The hearing featured testimony from NSF Director France Córdova and Daniel Arvizu, Chairman of the National Science Board.

Freshman Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is the new chair of the Research and Technology Subcommittee. In her opening remarks, she noted that policy makers wish to be strong advocates for science, but that in the current budget environment, just keeping budgets flat is a challenge, adding that “research dollars need to be spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.” With that in mind, Chairwoman Comstock expressed her interest in learning how NSF plans to prioritize research funding in FY 2016.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), a strong proponent of NSF’s social science research activities, maintained his support by noting NSF as the only federal agency that funds research across all fields of science and engineering, “including social and economic sciences.”

Chairman of the full Science Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), was curious why NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorates was slated for a 7.5 percent increase in FY 2016 while the other directorates dealing with engineering, biological sciences, and physical sciences, would receive less. However, Smith also commended NSF for the steps the agency has taken to develop a new transparency and accountability policy to better articulate to lay audiences the value of the research it funds.

Ranking Member of the full Science Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), spoke in support of the NSF budget request, noting that she hopes “Congress will have the wisdom to fund it.” With regard to inquiries over the last year into individual grants the majority identified as “less worthy” of NSF funding, many in the social sciences, Rep. Johnson stated that Congress “[should] not presume to have the expertise to make that determination.” She called on her colleagues to trust the merit review process and the experts to make those decisions, adding that it is important to keep the merit preview process from becoming a “political review” process.

When pressed by a number of Republican subcommittee members about why NSF funds projects on topics such as “the gambling habits of monkeys” or “teaching lions to run on treadmills,” Dr. Córdova explained that while some projects may seem obscure, they often lead to groundbreaking results, adding that NSF’s new transparency policy should better articulate the value of such grants to the national interest.

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