May 18-22: A Challenging Week for the National Science Foundation

By Mark Vieth, Senior Vice President, CRD Associates

The week of May 18 proved that science policy and funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF) – once immune to the partisan fights that afflict so many other issues before Congress – no longer enjoys bipartisan support in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Within a 24 hour period, the House advanced both authorization and appropriations bills for the NSF that would politicize science funding decisions at NSF and place higher values on certain scientific disciplines at the expense of others.

Despite near universal opposition from the nation’s science and higher education communities, the House on May 20 approved H.R. 1806, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act.  Breaking with past bipartisan tradition, this legislation sets specific authorization levels for each of the seven research directorates at NSF.  The bill increases funding for several directorates, but slashes deeply (43%) into the funding levels for the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate.  In effect, by passing this legislation, the House has placed value judgments on which disciplines of science deserve more funding over others – instead of allowing for the world- renowned merit review process at NSF to make decisions based on the quality of each grant application submitted to the agency.

While the science and higher education community lost this vote in the House, it should take encouragement from the fact that its advocacy efforts reaped dividends.  The bill only passed by 12 votes (217-205, http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2015/roll258.xml), with 23 courageous Republicans voting against the bill.  These members heard the concerns of their home state colleges and universities about the impact of this legislation on their research activities, particularly in the social sciences and geosciences, and the bad precedent that the legislation sets pitting one scientific discipline against another.

Meanwhile, on the same day, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Act. While avoiding the approach of H.R. 1806 of including specific line-items for each directorate at NSF, the report language accompanying the bill (released fewer than 24 hours prior to the mark-up) includes damaging language requiring that 70% of NSF’s research budget be earmarked to specific directorates.  If implemented, this would have the practical effect of reducing funding for the SBE and Geosciences Directorates at NSF.

The science and higher education communities have remained united in their opposition to picking winners and losers among the scientific disciplines, and CRD Associates has been proud to play a part in this campaign.  We are also proud of our client, SAGE Publications, for playing a strong leadership role in promoting social and behavioral science funding and the merit review process at NSF.  Over the coming weeks, our community will focus on advocacy before the Senate, where we believe a different approach will be taken to authorizing and appropriating funding for the NSF!

Lisa Ellington

Big Thinkery, LLC, 1011 Kenilworth Court Northwest, Concord, NC, 28027