America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1806): Impact on the National Science Foundation
May 7, 2015
NSF serves the national interest by adhering to the mission of its original authorizing act of 1950: "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense." H.R. 1806 (Section 102) recognizes that "the Foundation has made major contributions for more than 60 years to strengthen and sustain the Nation's academic research enterprise" and "carries out important functions by supporting basic research in all science and engineering disciplines and in supporting STEM education at all levels."
It has been widely anticipated that a new authorizing act would enable actions to enhance the nation's competitiveness through science and innovation. In fact, H.R. 1806 provides findings that support the major ingredients to achieve this--including interdisciplinary research, international partnerships, and the enhancement of a STEM workforce. Yet the specific actions H.R. 1806 proposes contradict these findings.
- H.R. 1806 (Section 101) would set specific authorization levels for NSF's research directorates, placing arbitrary limits on scientific disciplines. This runs counter to the way NSF currently sets priorities for the Nation's investment in science and engineering. Listening and responding to the scientific community helps NSF set priorities and reveal important new areas of investigation. NSF engages with the scientific community to prioritize programs and establish budget priorities: these include decadal reports, reports of the National Academies, convening advisory committees and expert workshops, and continuously gathering input from many sources across all the fields of science and engineering.
- H.R. 1806 (Section 102) states that "many of the complex problems and challenges facing the Nation increasingly require the collaboration of multiple scientific disciplines. The Foundation should continue to emphasize cross-directorate research collaboration and activities to address these issues and encourage interdisciplinary research.” This finding contradicts the specific authorizations of Section 101, which would significantly constrain interdisciplinary research. In this section, the Office of Integrative Activities (OIA) is hard hit with a proposed 18% decline from the request, which becomes even more severe if funding for EPSCoR (which would comprise 44% of the budget of OIA through H.R. 1806) is maintained. One of the main objectives of OIA is to fund interdisciplinary research, notably through Science and Technology Centers and Major Research Instrumentation across the disciplines. Both of these activities are essential to all of the fields that NSF supports.
- The U.S. can ill afford to lose its edge in educating a STEM workforce. H.R. 1806 (Section 103) includes "expanding the pool of scientists and engineers in the United States, including among segments of the populations that have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields." Section 112 of this bill is wholly devoted to "expanding STEM opportunities." Yet H.R. 1806 would cut the budget line for the Directorate for Education and Human Resources by 10%. This is the Directorate which significantly funds the developing STEM workforce and STEM education, and drives new approaches that would broaden participation in STEM fields by people of all backgrounds. With this and the cut to OIA, more than 250 Graduate Research Fellowships are at risk, limiting support for students identified as the future innovators of the U.S.
- The social, behavioral and economic sciences significantly contribute to competitiveness by addressing the ethical, legal and social implications of scientific inquiry as well as advancing our understanding of the intersection of humans with science and technology. All of the last 51 U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics have been funded by the research divisions in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, which is slated for a 58% cut in H.R. 1806. NSF's newer cross-directorate initiatives (e.g., Food-Energy-Water nexus, Risk & Resilience, Understanding the Brain) all depend on the inclusion of the social and behavioral sciences to advance knowledge in the physical, biological, computer and geological sciences, as well as in engineering. Significant challenges facing the nation, such as cybersecurity, require a fundamental understanding of human behavior and social interaction.
- H.R. 1806 (Section 101) would decrease support for the Directorate for Geosciences, which includes polar sciences (Arctic and Antarctic research), by 12%. The geosciences include the disciplines that help us predict extreme weather events, disasters, and changes to the planet's land, atmosphere, and oceans. In an era when we see natural disasters on a giant scale happening all over the planet, we have more, not less, need for scientific understanding.
- H.R. 1806 (Section 101) authorizes NSF's Agency Operations and Award Management (AOAM) account at the current FY 2015 amount of $325 million. This level does not support the requirements associated with the relocation of NSF's headquarters and therefore jeopardizes support for the overall operations of the Foundation. The FY 2016 Request for AOAM is $354 million, which includes $31 million for the headquarters relocation. To accommodate these relocation costs within the level specified in H.R. 1806 would require unacceptable cuts elsewhere in the AOAM account, such as staffing reductions and decreased support for oversight and monitoring activities.
- H.R. 1806 (Sections 103 and 303) attempts to highlight the importance of international activities and calls on NSF to maintain international relationships with premier research institutions. Yet the budget cut of 25% posed by H.R. 1806 to NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering would deny hundreds of U.S. students, postdoctoral fellows and scientists opportunities to advance their research abroad and inhibit professional networking by limiting access to top-notch laboratories, facilities and field sites outside the U.S.
- The National Science Board, Congress and NSF have recently focused on minimizing the federal administration burden on all components of the research enterprise. H.R. 1806 weakens the conduct of research by adding numerous new administrative burdens on the agency, universities and scientists, counter to the bills finding (Section 102) that “redundant regulations and reporting requirements imposed by Federal agencies on research institutions and researchers increase costs by tens of millions of dollars annually.” This manifests itself in:
- more than 20 new reports or procedures required by the legislation, all of them unfunded, and
- limitations on scientific leaders from temporarily serving at NSF by restricting NSF's ability to utilize existing hiring authorities for rotating scientists (Section 121).
In summary, NSF advances the science and engineering enterprise with an emphasis on the basic research that fosters innovation. NSF continues to work with Congress to build a strong partnership focused on advancing science in the national interest.