House Science Committee Begins Conversation on NSF’s Future

On March 9, the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held an oversight hearing to discuss the National Science Foundation (NSF). Witnesses included NSF Director France Córdova and Allison Lerner, NSF’s Inspector General.

Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-VA) presided over the hearing, stating that its purpose is to hear an overview of NSF’s activities and priorities in light of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (P.L. 114-329), which was signed into law earlier this year and reauthorized a number of NSF functions, including STEM education programs (additional background on the AICA is available by following the above link).

Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), a Ph.D. political scientist, stressed in his opening remarks that the Science Committee should make NSF funding a priority, especially in the face of potential, significant budget cuts government-wide. He added that Congress “should not make the mistake of changing the science priorities,” pointing to past efforts by the Committee’s majority to target funding cuts to specific research areas at NSF, namely the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, and the geosciences. He placed special emphasis on the contributions social science make to society, highlighting cybersecurity and national defense as just two areas. He noted that social science funding is a “small but very important portion of the NSF budget.”

In contract to Rep. Lipinski’s statement, full Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) stated that it will be the challenge of his committee this year is to set funding priorities, noting that a “full reauthorization of NSF will rebalance priorities” to ensure that the merit review process funds research in areas of “national interest.” These remarks signal that we can expect much of the same coming out of the committee this year—a partisan divide over whether Congress should have a role in setting research priorities for NSF, impeding the agency’s gold-standard merit review process.

Dr. Córdova used her testimony to highlight the important role NSF plays in supporting “high risk, long term, curiosity driven research across nearly all fields of science and technology.” Noting that it is impossible to know where the next groundbreaking discovery will come from (or who will make it), Dr. Córdova made the case for a diverse research portfolio that is decided by the merit review process and also highlighted NSF’s new “10 big ideas,” which are intended as a long-term research agenda to keep the agency forward-looking at the next frontiers of science discovery.

Ms. Lerner provided an oversight summary and an update on the management of the agency. Specifics are available in Ms. Lerner’s testimony and on the NSF OIG website.

During the questions portion of the hearing, and in response to the concerns of Chairman Smith, Rep. Lipinski asked how funding priorities are set at NSF. Dr. Córdova explained the many inputs, including the input from the National Academy of Sciences, the scientific community, and experts within the Foundation. When asked specifically about the impacts of social science in particular, Dr. Córdova highlighted the contributions the social sciences make to national security, cybersecurity, and a variety of other areas, adding that “[she] can’t think of a sphere of human endeavor that doesn’t need social science to inform it.”

An archived webcast of the hearing is available on the Committee’s website. A second hearing is scheduled for March 21.

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