National Science Foundation Director France Córdova testified Tuesday before the U.S. House subcommittee on research and technology. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the agency, concerns about foreign espionage in science and the NSF’s STEM education initiatives were discussed.
Bipartisan support for increased NSF budget
Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle agreed on the importance of funding the NSF. They criticized Trump’s proposed 12 percent cut of $900 million to the science agency for fiscal year 2020. In her opening remarks, subcommittee chair Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said the cuts “would threaten our nation’s leadership in science and technology across all fields of science and engineering.”
Jim Baird, R-Ind., subcommittee ranking member, said that the president’s proposal is just a proposal and that the U.S. Congress decides how much to fund the government.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., ranking member of the House science committee, echoed Baird’s comments that the president’s proposal is only a starting point to budget negotiations. Lucas added that the federal government has the responsibility to prioritize basic research and development.
Bipartisan concerns regarding foreign espionage in science
GOP and Democratic subcommittee members voiced concern about potential vulnerabilities to intellectual property theft and espionage by other countries. In response to a question from Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., on how the NSF was protecting itself from these threats, Córdova said the NSF requires all scientists who rotate through as program officers or assistant directors to be U.S. citizens or current citizenship applicants. To better track and assess applicant funding sources, the NSF is creating a standardized grant disclosure form that can be monitored by computer software.
The NSF is also contracting with JASON, an independent committee of elite scientists, to perform a risk assessment on the agency’s research protections. In addition, the NSF is meeting with the National Academies of Sciences for advice on best policy practices to prevent malicious attacks by foreign entities.
Although Córdova mentioned that the NSF has seen no theft or espionage efforts by foreign entities, she could not deny that such an attack might have occurred undetected.
Striking a balance when adjusting procedures to prevent espionage is difficult, Córdova said. “You just don’t want to go overboard in one direction.”
Supporting the STEM pipeline
Subcommittee members were eager for updates on several science, technology, engineering and mathematics education programs supported by the NSF.
Lucas asked Córdova about the agency’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCOR, which provides funding to rural communities and states that receive little federal funding.
States have more capacity to do research through participation in the program, Córdova said. EPSCOR administrators are looking for feedback to review and adjust the program as needed.
Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., asked about how the NSF is supporting STEM education initiatives, especially at community colleges.
The NSF has been funding community colleges for 30 years through the Advanced Technological Education program, or ATE, Córdova said. While each ATE is different depending on community needs, the program supports initiatives that improve technician education at community colleges.