Representative John Culberson (R–TX) huddles in 2015 with Charles Elachi (left) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.

Representative John Culberson (R–TX) huddles in 2015 with Charles Elachi (right) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.

NASA SMAP/T. Wynne

Top Republican relents on dictating spending for each NSF directorate

Representative John Culberson (R–TX) says he’s seen the light and no longer wants to specify funding levels for individual research directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Culberson, who chairs the spending subcommittee in the House of Representatives that controls NSF’s budget, made his comments after a hearing yesterday on NSF’s 2017 budget request. It followed a strong plea from NSF Director France Córdova to let the agency build a portfolio based on the most exciting research across all fields. If Culberson’s change of heart is real, it would be a significant victory for the U.S. research community, which has accused him and other congressional Republicans of asserting their own research priorities above those set jointly by the agency and working scientists.

In particular, Culberson has pushed NSF to boost spending on four of its six research directorates—biology, computing, engineering, and mathematics and physical sciences—while trimming its investments in the social and geosciences. He’s done so in tandem with Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the House science committee, which sets policy for NSF. Last year, for example, Culberson’s spending panel adopted a formula that would have required NSF to allocate 70% of its research dollars on the four favored directorates. By fencing off other programs, it also would have led to deep cuts in the other two directorates.

“But that wasn’t in the final bill, was it?” Culberson noted after the hearing, in response to a question from ScienceInsider. “I don’t think that politicians should impose their priorities on the scientific community,” he added. “I think that we should let NSF pick the most promising areas and give the agency the flexibility to pursue them.”

Córdova had made exactly that point during her testimony. The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Mike Honda (D–CA), had opened the door by asking her a question about the wisdom of designating funding by directorate, given how much research today is interdisciplinary. Córdova’s response emphasized points that community leaders have made repeatedly.

“We have a vigorous community that comes together to set priorities” through workshops, reports, and advisory committees, Córdova began. “And we generally follow suit. Our annual budget request tries to reflect those priorities.” Having Congress designate funding levels for each directorate, she argued, “would undermine that collaborative process, and jeopardize our ability to pursue the most promising opportunities.”

Córdova then took a swipe at the community itself, saying in effect that many scientists might try to take advantage of increased congressional involvement in NSF’s budget by lobbying on their own behalf. “It would also make the process highly politicized,” she told Culberson. “Instead of the community coming up with proposals for NSF, they would go directly to you, and insist that their science was the most important.”

“That would create a very unstable situation,” she added, “in which priorities would change in line with the changing membership in Congress. So we think it’s not a good idea to have directorate-level funding.”

The hearing was the first step in a long process of setting NSF’s budget for the fiscal year that begins on 1 October. A faction of House Republicans are demanding $30 billion in cuts from an overall spending agreement reached last December that sets discretionary spending at $1.07 trillion for 2017. That category funds every science agency, and a prolonged fight over the top line could delay final allocations until after the November election or even after the new Congress convenes in January 2017.

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