House Funding Panel Discusses NSF Budget, Social Science Funding

On March 17, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) held a hearing to discuss the fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget proposal for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The hearing featured testimony from NSF Director France Córdova.

Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) noted in his opening remarks his and the committee’s strong support for NSF, but added that the current budgetary environment requires that NSF ensure money is “well spent and not wasted.” Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) expressed his concern with U.S. investment in science and engineering falling behind other countries, such as China, adding that U.S. science leadership used to be an absolute but now has become relative.

Dr. Córdova addressed three general questions in her statement before the subcommittee: (1) why does NSF fund what it funds, including the social, behavioral and economic sciences; (2) how does NSF set priorities; and (3) what is NSF’s long-range plan and vision for science. Regarding the first question, Dr. Córdova stated that NSF has long prided itself on “adding to the knowledge base for all of science and engineering,” as opposed to employing a narrow focus. In fact, she added, 51 of the last Nobel Prize winners in economics have been supported by NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE).

With respect to setting priorities, the Director described the long, deliberate process NSF uses, which starts with soliciting input from a large community of scholars, engineers, and educators and is informed by various scientific priority setting activities, such as decadal surveys, and expert guidance from the National Academies, scientific societies, and university researchers. NSF balances this external input with input from the scientific staff within NSF to set the agency’s priorities.

However, Dr. Córdova continued, planning must be “highly flexible and adaptive” to discoveries and insights that are unpredictable, adding, “It is limiting to plan for a future that cannot be anticipated.” She argued that setting a 10-year research plan for NSF does not reflect the nature of scientific discovery, which is ever-changing. Instead, NSF “plans carefully in as much detail as current knowledge permits,” and revisits its strategic plan—which is approved by the National Science Board—every four years to reflect the current state of science.

Regarding the concerns expressed about falling behind on the global stage, Dr. Córdova agreed that there is good evidence for concern, citing a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, which put U.S. R&D expenditures tenth globally.

Chairman Culberson noted that some Members of Congress have recommended that the Appropriations Committee allocate NSF’s budget according to directorate—a proposal also found in NSF authorization legislation from the last Congress known as the FIRST Act—as opposed to the current practice of providing NSF with a budget and leaving it up to the experts at NSF and the merit review process to determine how funds should be divvied up across the scientific disciplines the agency supports. He asked for the Director’s thoughts on this idea and about potential impact on the peer review process at NSF. Calling this “a really big deal,” Dr. Córdova responded that the NSF budget was last appropriated by directorate in FY 1999. At that time the NSF budget was half the size it is today. Since then, NSF has put in place other priority setting processes for determining what science to fund, which have served the agency well. The business of the merit review process, she noted—which includes decadal reports, workshops, and community input—is a many months-long process. Turning the question back on Chairman Culberson, Dr. Córdova asked, “Do you really want all those scientists in your office asking about setting priorities when we have these decadal and other review processes in place?” She added that under current practice, NSF is able to be flexible and cross-directorate, and that it would be a different situation for Congress to have scientists asking them to determine whether to prioritize a telescope over a ship.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) asked about efforts by some on the other side of aisle to vilify social science research supported by NSF as not being in the national interest. He called the lack of thoughtful discussion on these grants troubling, adding that such determinations should remain in the hands of scientists and the peer review process. Dr. Córdova concurred, noting that the social, behavioral and economic sciences are a vital part of NSF’s entire portfolio; so important, in fact, that the SBE sciences can be found in all of the new cross-directorate initiatives proposed in NSF’s budget request.

However, Chairman Culberson responded that while he wants to protect the agency from “political influence,” NSF needs to be mindful about how certain projects look to the average taxpayer so as to not “damage NSF’s sterling reputation.”

An archived videocast of the hearing is available here.

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