Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, made it clear at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that they are not happy about the Trump administration’s proposal to decrease funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), and they plan to do something about it.
The subcommittee ”is going to work arm in arm to ensure that NSF is appropriately funded and we preserve American leadership in scientific research,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies at the 7 June hearing.
The administration plans to cut NSF’s funding by 11% for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which begins in October. That would drop the agency’s funding to $6.65 billion for FY 2018, down from the FY 2017 enacted level of $7.47 billion that was signed into law in May. Funding for NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences would decline to $783 million, down 10.7% from the 2017 budget continuing resolution level that was in place until the FY 2017 budget plan became law. Although the president proposes a budget, Congress controls the purse strings.
Culberson said the science community needs to help Congress focus on what is the “bigger problem” of balancing the federal budget, reducing debt, and keeping Social Security and other programs afloat. He noted that action in those areas would free up more money for science and other priorities.
“Little Justification” to Cut NSF Budget
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democratic member, said that he and Culberson “agree totally” that NSF “is a great agency and it’s one that should be funded properly.”
Serrano sharply criticized the administration’s budget. “It is the first time in the 67-year history of this agency that a president has proposed a budget below the previous fiscal year. The result is deeply troubling,” he said. “Overall, the NSF’s budget request for this year is an extreme example of the problems with the president’s proposal to increase defense spending by $54 billion at the expense of domestic priorities. There is little justification for cutting vital agencies like NSF simply to fund a defense department already receiving more than half a trillion dollars each year.”
NSF director France Córdova acknowledged that the smaller budget for FY 2018 does present some challenges. As an example, she said that the new spending level would allow for 8000 research grant proposals to receive funding in FY 2018. That’s 19% of proposals expected to be submitted to the agency for funding in that year. By contrast, in FY 2017, at the level that NSF was funded under the continuing resolution, the agency was able to award grants to 21% of submitted proposals, or 8800 grants.
As a result of the funding reduction, the public will have “less benefit from the federal investment in science,” she added. However, Córdova stressed that $6.5 billion still is a lot of money to do good science and that the agency is used to making difficult funding decisions.
At the hearing, subcommittee member Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) worried about the drop in funding for geosciences. “If NSF is cutting back on geoscience and NOAA and NASA are cutting back on research in related fields, who’s going to do this?” he asked.
Stating that NSF is one of the major federal agencies involved in the geosciences, Córdova acknowledged that “there will be less wherewithal in order to do that important work.” She said NSF, using its merit review process to pick the most-worthy proposals, will continue to do “the best we can” with the budget it has. “We think that that work is very, very important,” she added.
Subcommittee member Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said at the hearing that he worries about “a movement to pick and choose here in Congress what programs to fund at NSF, which I believe would unnecessarily and detrimentally inject politics into questions of what science projects should be funded.”
The FY 2017 budget does not specify spending by NSF directorate, and Córdova said she hopes that Congress does not issue funding directives for directorate-level funding for Geosciences and other agency directorates.
“The science community is best equipped to set the priorities for science and engineering,” Córdova said. She noted that NSF relies on advice from the National Academy of Sciences and on agency advisory groups and works with Congress and the administration to integrate priorities and come up with the best strategic plan for investment.
“We never know where the next discovery is going to come from or who is going to make it,” she said. So it “behooves us to continue to fund, as has been our mandate for these 67 years, all of science and engineering.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer