House appropriators talk National Science Foundation funding ?>

House appropriators talk National Science Foundation funding

Earlier this week, we provided you with a summary of the budget hearing with National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins.  Today, we bring you last week’s hearing featuring National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. 

What we learned

U.S. House appropriators are struggling with balancing science funding and deficit spending.

  • Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Chairman Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, in his opening remarks voiced support for science agencies but opposition to President Barack Obama’s proposed funding increases. “Unfortunately, the president’s budget will request about $400 million in new unauthorized mandatory funding from a variety of sources that are not going to happen.”  (Context:  Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget request relied heavily on Congress creating mandatory funding accounts to support many of his administration’s priorities.  These are the “variety of sources” to which Culberson was referring.  He continued: “We’re devoted in the National Science Foundation, but these mandatory funding increases are simply not going to happen.”  He concluded that the president’s budget request “includes funding sources that are utterly unrealistic and improbable (and that put) us in an even deeper hole than we are in.”
  • Subcommittee ranking Mmmber Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., highlighted the important role that federal investments play in supporting the nation’s innovation industry. “If it weren’t for the broad initial government investment in the fundamental research by NSF, then this innovative cycle from lab to market would grind to a halt.”  Honda addressed the politicization of science as well, saying, “It is critical that politics not be allowed to insert itself into the process and say that some scientists are not in the national interest and therefore we will not invest in them.”  Finally, Honda called for more funding for the NSF: “Ignoring the mandatory spending, this budget only asks for a 1.3-percent increase (over last year).  This is subinflation.  It’s not enough.  The world’s investing heavily in fundamental research across all of the discipline, and so must we.”

France Córdova, NSF director, laid out a strong case to support basic research in this budget

  • In the first lines of her opening statement, Córdova exclaimed, “NSF believes that this budget comprises a strong request that is responsive to the national interest.”
  • Córdova also provided some highlights in the NSF’s history that underscore the value of supporting the agency: “The fruits of NSF’s supported research drive our economy, enhance our security and ensure our global leadership.  As you know, basic research is uncertain and risky, but it can be revolutionary.  Nobel prizes that mark transformative discoveries, in fact, have been awarded to 217 researchers funding by the National Science Foundation.”
  • And, specifically about this year’s budget request, Córdova had this to say: “The budget request before you builds on the foundation’s strong success as the place for discovery and where discoverers begin. Our 6.7-percent, or $500 million, increase will place special emphasis on the early-career researchers needed to realize tomorrow’s breakthroughs.  With the FY17 request, we will be able to fund nearly a thousand early career faculty.”
  • When asked why the budget request included mandatory funding, Córdova cited stability. “Stability and funding,” she said.  “So our funding success rate — let’s call it the number of proposals that are successful as a fraction of the folks that are proposing — has gone down in the last couple of decades from something like 40 percent to 20 percent overall.”
  • Finally, Córdova addressed the political question of which research should be funded by the NSF. (Culberson and others have argued that the government should fund only science that is in the national interest). Córdova quoted the congressionally established mission of the organization: “The language says ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.’ ”

Much of the hearing focused on physical science issues. No questions were central to the biological directorate of the NSF.  Questions on topics such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, the importance of research into how the universe works, the Advanced Technological Education Program, and interagency cooperation were raised.

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