Representative John Culberson (R–TX), center, with NASA officials in 2015.

NASA SMAP/T. Wynne

Why a flat 2018 budget could tie NSF’s hands

What would a flat budget mean for the National Science Foundation (NSF)?

For many agencies, it means maintaining the status quo. And NSF may have trouble doing anything other than that thanks to some pointed instructions from a key legislator. The language in its pending 2018 spending bill—approved last night by the appropriations committee for the U.S. House of Representatives—could also rekindle a smoldering debate over whether Congress should set parameters for how much NSF invests in specific disciplines.

First the good news. The House spending panel rejected a proposal from President Donald Trump to cut $672 million from NSF’s six research directorates. The committee instead approved the same amount of money—$6.03 billion—that those directorates received this year. (NSF’s overall 2017 budget is $7.338 billion.)

“We’ve protected the National Science Foundation because we understand that funding basic research is essential to the nation,” Representative John Culberson (R–TX), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee that oversees NSF’s budget, told the full committee before his $54 billion bill was adopted on a 31–21 party line vote. Culberson also promised to give NSF some additional funding should Congress decide to raise the current cap on overall domestic spending for 2018 and give his panel additional spending authority.

The rest of the story

But Culberson’s kind words don’t tell the whole story. NSF officials are certainly grateful that the Houston conservative rejected Trump’s big proposed cuts to the agency. However, they are probably less enthusiastic about a report accompanying the bill that provides additional guidance on what the agency should do with the money. (As per its policy, NSF declined to comment on pending legislation.)

In particular, the report prohibits NSF from spending less next year on “research infrastructure.” The committee singles out large scientific facilities; observatories; and centers in astronomy, the geosciences, and high-performance computing. It also fences off the entire astronomy division—which sits within NSF’s math and physical sciences directorate—from any reductions.

Those instructions will give NSF less flexibility to redistribute funding to meet its priorities. To understand why, let’s revisit how NSF handled the Trump administration’s plans to cut the agency’s 2018 budget by 11%.

No peanut butter

First, NSF Director France Córdova and her senior managers took a hard look at all programs. They decided that some should shrink by an even larger amount, whereas others should be spared from any cuts or even expanded. “Rather than say, ‘OK guys, just spread it like peanut butter,’ I decided to try and look at some of the bigger things we could take off the table,” she explained last month after testifying before Culberson’s subcommittee.

Two areas in which NSF proposed large cuts for 2018 were its prestigious graduate research fellowships and a long-running program that helps states receiving relatively small amounts of NSF funding. In contrast, the agency protected research activities that bolster the agency’s recently created list of 10 big ideas—from better understanding the rules of life to exploring a more navigable Arctic—that NSF hopes to pursue in the years to come.

Córdova launched that priority-setting exercise knowing NSF has spent the last 4 years fighting off attempts by another powerful legislator—Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the House science committee—to reshuffle the agency’s portfolio. Smith has wanted NSF to put a priority on funding the physical, computing, engineering, and biological sciences, and to downgrade research in the social and behavioral sciences and anything related to climate change. Smith has also repeatedly questioned NSF’s ability to choose the best science and has flagged dozens of NSF grants as frivolous uses of tax dollars.

Science advocacy groups have fought Smith tooth and nail, saying that his proposals would hinder NSF’s ability to support multidisciplinary research and to respond quickly to unexpected opportunities across the entire scientific landscape. At the same time, Smith’s ability to influence NSF’s budget is limited. The panel he leads can shape NSF’s policies and recommend funding levels. But it is Culberson’s appropriations panel that actually has direct control over NSF’s spending.

Culberson initially supported Smith’s efforts to designate funding for each research directorate (rather than only for the entire research account), and to disfavor the social sciences and climate research. (NSF’s education programs and any new large facilities it wants to build are funded through different accounts.) But in a 2016 spending bill, Culberson dropped the idea and promised a more hands-off approach.

This year’s bill seems to backtrack on that pledge. But it would be easy to miss that message. The report takes the unusual step of explicitly rejecting the president’s budget, noting that “the Committee does not adopt the administration’s proposal to reduce Research and Related Activities.” The next sentence appears to offer a rationale for a higher level of support: “The Committee believes that strategic investments in the physical science areas are vitally important for the United States to remain the global leader in innovation, productivity, economic growth, and good-paying jobs.”

But wait. The second sentence actually refers only to investments “in the physical science[s].” The omission of the rest of NSF’s portfolio could be read as an attempt by Culberson to align his spending bill with Smith’s desires.

At the same time, the first sentence seems intent on convincing the scientific community that Culberson is much more supportive of science than the president. Together, the two statements allow Culberson to straddle the fence. And if his guidance is included in whatever appropriations bill Congress finally approves, it could also tie NSF’s hands.

Looking out for astronomy

Culberson, a self-avowed space enthusiast and huge astronomy buff, also wants to protect the federal government’s investments in astronomy. That interest is reflected in his bill’s generosity toward NASA’s planetary sciences program, which would grow by 19%, to $2.1 billion. For Culberson, the centerpiece of that program is a quest to find life on Europa, a jovian moon. Toward that goal, the budget of a proposed Europa Clipper mission would balloon by more than 50% in 2018, to $495 million.

NSF’s ground-based astronomy program is much smaller than NASA’s programs, and no single project has caught Culberson’s eye. Still, astronomy is the only one of the 32 discipline-specific divisions and research offices at NSF that is explicitly protected in the bill, to wit: “The Committee expects NSF to sustain support for the programs and scientific facilities funded by the Astronomical Sciences Division at no less than the fiscal year 2017 level to maintain full scientific and educational operations.”

Why does that matter? If NSF receives the same amount for research it got in 2017, wouldn’t astronomy be made whole?

Maybe. In Trump’s request, astronomy was tagged for a $25 million cut in 2018, to $221 million. And NSF officials probably think that amount is too low. But the report mandates that astronomy receive at least $246 million—no matter what NSF thinks.

Continued uncertainty

Of course, Congress in the end may not give NSF the full $6.033 billion for research. The Senate has yet to take up a comparable CJS bill. And the two bodies don’t have the same priorities.

One big disagreement between the House and Senate is over the number of new ships in NSF’s fleet of academic research vessels. Last year NSF asked for money to start building two midsized ships. The House bill didn’t fund any, the Senate wanted three, and the Senate number ultimately prevailed.

This year Culberson has taken the same stance: no ships. But yesterday he admitted that was just an opening gambit, telling his colleagues that he expected the final spending bill to contain money for at least one research vessel. The problem comes if Congress bumps up NSF’s construction account but doesn’t raise the agency’s overall top line. That means the money for building the ships would have to come from somewhere, and one possibility is research.

Finally, the House bill would hike the current budget for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which helps have-not states, by $10 million. The Senate could add its own earmarks. And NSF officials would also have to find that money by taxing existing programs within the research account.

Democrat legislators on the appropriations committee made several attempts yesterday to increase funding for specific programs and agencies within the bill. Representative David Price (D–NC), for example, proposed adding $600 million to NSF’s research account. He chose that number, he said, because it matched the authorized level of spending in a 2010 law—a promise that Congress didn’t keep.

Culberson responded to Price, who withdrew his amendment, and every other petitioner by citing his hope that Congress would rewrite a 2011 budget agreement and lift the current ceiling on domestic discretionary spending, now $511 billion for 2018. He predicted that Republican leaders would then give his CJS subcommittee more money to spend.

Of course, nobody knows the size of any such windfall, or whether it will actually materialize. But that didn’t stop Culberson from saying he would bolster several programs within the subcommittee’s purview—not just NSF’s research account, but also the aeronautics program at NASA, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Sea Grant program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

His ability to deliver on those promises will be put to the test as Congress works its way through the 2018 appropriations process. The answer may not come until well into the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 October.