Although the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) doesn’t yet have any news about its budget for the upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2018, NSF director France Córdova is trying to think positively.
“We’re trying not to be overly anxious. We’re trying to be optimistic. Clearly, we could prepare for all sorts of scenarios,” Córdova said at a 12 April meeting of NSF’s Advisory Committee for Geosciences at the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The Trump administration’s budget blueprint for FY 2018, issued on 16 March, did not include any references to NSF, but it did call for significant cuts to some federal science agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Córdova anticipates that the administration will release a more complete budget proposal in May for Congress to consider. In the meantime, the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that generally funds the government at FY 2016 levels; the CR expires on 28 April for the current FY 2017.
Córdova said that by focusing on the importance and possibilities of science, “we won’t let all these rumors and predictions [about the budget], some of which are not good, weigh us down.”
She hopes that the administration and Congress will recognize the value of funding basic research and of innovative efforts such as the agency’s “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” initiative: a set of forward looking proposals that includes navigating the new Arctic and integrating research across fields.
An “Opportune Time for Science to Make Its Mark”
The administration, Córdova said, is “still under formation with respect to basic research. So that’s a good thing. This, I think, is an opportune time for science to make its mark on what its importance is.”
Córdova stressed to the committee the importance of communicating the value of NSF and the science it supports to the new administration. “You can all help as a committee by thinking [about] what are the expressed administration’s priorities and how do those dovetail into what we’re doing, what the president says that he and his administration really care about,” Córdova said. “Obviously, there’s jobs and national security, keeping our country prosperous and safe, growing the economy. Those are all things that the geosciences contribute immensely toward. But have we framed our messages and the way the stories that we illustrate them with appropriate for that?”
She added that “every administration has appreciated the importance of basic research,” although they may have different priorities about what they think is important.
On another budget concern, Córdova said she hopes that funding for NSF does not include congressional funding directives that wade down to the agency’s directorate level for the geosciences or other directorates. NSF in the past has been spared from proposed directorate-level directives, with support from the geosciences community. The agency, she said, has good message points, which have been heard in Congress, about the importance of the science and engineering NSF funds, how it all works together to address common challenges, and how one never knows where the next discovery will come from.
“I personally would be surprised if anything untoward was done to our [funding] flexibility, which we very much appreciate, of having the science and engineering communities choose the priorities,” she commented. “It would be a very different world if science, especially basic research, became political, which it would become if there were directorate-to-directorate level funding. I really feel that very, very strongly.”
She added, “You can’t solve those big questions by taking down one branch of science or another or plussing up some because that would mean that you have the crystal ball that no one does have.”
The Impact of Lifting the Hiring Freeze
Córdova said that NSF is beginning to sort through the meaning and implications of a 12 April memorandum from the White House Office of Management and Budget that lifts a 23 January federal hiring freeze. She said that the memo, titled “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce,” provides good news in lifting the hiring freeze but that agencies now need to develop workforce reduction plans.
“We are trying to balance those two. We have to figure out exactly what the rules of the road are and what that all means,” she said. Noting that NSF has “a very small workforce relative to our budget,” with about 1200 federal employees and about 170 employees assigned to NSF through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, the agency doesn’t have “much fat on our bones,” she said. “It’s hard to think about being much leaner.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer