Mixed Signals for NSF
NSF’s research budget bears much of the spending reduction agreed upon by the Senate panel. The agency’s “research and related activities” funding would dip 2.2%, or $120.875 million, from the current fiscal year under the Senate appropriations plan, from just under $5.564 billion to $5.443 billion. President Obama had proposed $6.253 billion.
House appropriations, by contrast, actually increased NSF’s research budget by $43 million, or 0.77%, above FY ’11, resulting in $5.607 billion. That figure is about $646.6 million, or just over 10%, less than Obama’s proposal.
In return for the extra money, the House panel made clear it expects NSF to follow through with a set of program cuts and eliminations it proposed earlier this year. Plans aim to shrink or nix programs NSF deems outdated, duplicative, or unable to achieve its goals.
NSF’s Research Initiation to Broaden Participation in Biology program—designed to develop more biologists among certain ethnic groups—would end with the current fiscal year. Funding stood at $1.91 million in FY 2010 and $2 million earlier this year before the April budget deal. “It did not achieve the goal of broadening participation in biology; the number of proposals from underrepresented groups did not increase,” NSF stated in its FY 2012 Budget Request to Congress.
House appropriations declared that the cuts and extra funding “will allow NSF to expand or enhance its activities across a range of research areas, with significant impacts on national security or economic competitiveness. The committee directs NSF to prioritize these new activities toward cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure improvements; advanced manufacturing as well as materials research; and disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in the natural and physical sciences, math, and engineering.”
During FY 2010, the most recent year for which NSF has figures, the agency reportedly awarded 20,632 research support grants totaling $5.967 billion, for an average of $289,201.48 per grant. At this average, with the Senate cuts hold, NSF will be able to dole out 418 fewer grants.
NSF funds 20% of basic science research. The vast majority of the FY 2010 research support grants, 18,500, were awarded to university researchers receiving a total of $4.626 billion. Another 853 grants totaling $193.98 million were awarded to small businesses, while industry accounted for just 30 grants but $207.3 million. The federal government accounted for $172.6 million in 108 grants.
Additionally, the House is calling for stronger oversight of contingency budgets for construction projects, urging the agency’s inspector general to focus on oversight of spending, and directing NSF to submit a report on its progress toward that goal. The panel has requested a Government Accountability Office study of NSF contracting practices.
Among proposed Senate appropriations’ cuts is NSF’s “education and human resources” spending, which supports programs that promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The committee agreed to spend $829 million, which is 3.7%, or $32.034 million, below the soon-to-end fiscal year and 9%, or $82.2 million, below Obama’s budget request.
Some NSF programs and activities were spared, though, by the Senate committee:
- Spending for “major” research equipment and facilities construction would stay at $117.055 million; that’s just over half of the $224.68 million proposed by Obama. The House committee would trim that by almost 15%, or just over $17 million, to an even $100 million in FY 2012.
- The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) would stay at $146.83 million. EPSCoR is designed to advance competitiveness in 27 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which receive a smaller amount of NSF R&D money. EPSCoR is more popular with politicos than many other programs funded by the agency, Samuel Rankin, chairman of the Coalition for National Science Funding, told GEN.
The sole life science priority identified by House appropriations was neuroscience. “The committee directs NSF to establish a Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience crosscutting theme to guide future budget formulation in this area and to increase its investments in research through this theme in fiscal year 2012,” the panel stated.
House appropriations also directed NSF to report back on how Washington and the science community could better balance public access to data accelerated by the internet with researchers’ ability to retain intellectual property rights for “potentially lucrative” findings and with the government’s ability to protect scientific IP with “significant economic or security implications.”