A roller coaster ride at the NSF

For the past several weeks, the National Science Foundation has had its fair share of air time on Capitol Hill. The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act has been winding its way through the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology committee since November, and it was finally debated by the full committee two weeks ago. A bill that sets NSF appropriations for the coming fiscal year has also been moving through the legislative process and was debated before the entire House last week.

The America COMPETES Act of 2010 reauthorized the mission of the NSF, set broad policy goals for the agency and recommended funding levels for the next 3 years. The FIRST Act was supposed to pick up where COMPETES left off, but most in the science community view the FIRST Act as an attack on the NSF. Despite several changes to the bill since its inception, the Republican sponsors of the FIRST Act did not make enough changes to win over the support of the scientific community.

In March, the Research subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology committee held a hearing to amend, or markup, the FIRST Act. As the FIRST Act was written by the Republican majority of the committee, most of the proposed amendments and changes to the bill came from Democrats who had little input during the writing process. Several of the amendments, though, were withdrawn after the chair of the subcommittee pledged to work across the aisle with his colleagues to compromise on changes to the bill. Unfortunately, these discussions never happened, and the FIRST Act was brought before the full SST committee largely unchanged.

During the full SST committee markup, Democrats again launched attacks against the FIRST Act, submitting amendments to strip out specific provisions and even replace the bill entirely. The Democrats voiced sharp criticism of the merit-review, research misconduct and reference citation sections as well as the lackluster funding recommendations. However, all of these amendments were defeated along a party-line vote. Furthermore, efforts to strip out provisions that reduce funding for the Social, Behavioral and Economic sciences and the Geosciences directorates also failed. The FIRST Act passed the full SST committee and now awaits action before the full House.

On a parallel track, the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill, which provides funding for NSF, passed the CJS Appropriations subcommittee and the full Appropriations committee with a nearly $200 million increase in funding for the NSF. This is significantly more than what President Obama asked for and more than what is provided in the FIRST Act. When the bill came to the House floor, many expected an amendment to be proposed that would cut up to $50 million from the SBE directorate, but that amendment never materialized. Rather, only $15 million was cut, and NSF largely avoided any significant harm from the amendment process.

While the FIRST Act represents a legislative lowlight for the NSF, the House CJS appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year is a highlight. However, the outcome of legislative fights over the NSF also must include the Senate. The Senate Appropriations committee is expected to get to work this week to determine funding levels in their own CJS bill. Regarding the FIRST Act and a COMPETES reauthorization, the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology committee still has yet to release a bill. Until they do, we won’t know how close or far apart the House and Senate are on reauthorizing the NSF.

Follow the Policy Blotter to stay up to date with all of the news about the NSF and other science policy issues.

UPDATE: The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Appropriations subcommittee approved $7.2 billion for NSF for fiscal 2015. This is less than what passed the House but the same as what Obama requested in his budget. Once these bills pass the House and Senate, a conference committee will determine the funding level of NSF. It is expected the final amount will be between the House and Senate numbers.

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