Representative John Culberson (R–TX, right) confers with the staff director of the spending panel he chairs.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Surprise! House spending panel gives NSF far more money for telescope than it requested

The chairman of an influential congressional spending panel believes accelerating big engineering projects can save the government money. And last week Representative John Culberson (R–TX) applied that principle to a $680 million telescope the National Science Foundation (NSF) is building in Chile—although neither project scientists nor NSF asked for the additional money for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

“I learned from the Katy Freeway project that you can speed up completion of big engineering projects by front-loading the funding,” Culberson says, referring to a major expansion of Interstate 10 west of Houston, Texas, a decade ago. “That helps you to lock in costs and speed up the overall construction timeline.”

Culberson chairs the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subpanel on commerce, justice, and science. Last week, the committee adopted a $62.5 billion spending bill for fiscal year 2019 that included NSF, NASA, and the science agencies within the Department of Commerce. To everyone’s surprise, Culberson nearly tripled the amount NSF had requested for the LSST as part of the bill’s overall 5% increase for the agency.

The LSST will be the ultimate survey telescope, mapping the entire available sky every 3 days and logging anything that moves, changes, or disappears. Construction began in 2014, and NSF has a 9-year timeline to spread out the $473 million that it expects to spend. (The Department of Energy is putting up $168 million for a key component, the world’s biggest digital camera. Its 3200-megapixel detector will be able to gather 20 terabytes of multicolored imaging data every night.)

A “strange” surprise

NSF’s timeline assumed Congress will provide $49 million in 2019 and a total of $92 million over the next 3 years to finish construction. Instead, Culberson put $123 million into the 2019 bill—a $74 million jump.

“We didn’t request this. We were budgeted for $49 million and expected that amount,” says astrophysicist Steven Kahn, director of the LSST, which has its headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. “It never hurts to have more money in hand. But it won’t speed things up much, because we’re not cash-limited.”

“I don’t totally understand it,” Kahn adds. “It’s a strange thing. We’ve never seen it before.”

NSF officials are equally baffled. “We don’t know the intent of the report language and I don’t think we can speculate,” admits James Ulvestad, NSF’s chief officer for research facilities in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former head of the astronomy division.

Culberson says it shouldn’t be a mystery. “The whole point of this is to ensure that these critical scientific instruments are brought online as quickly as possible,” he says. He declined to say whether anyone connected to the project requested the additional funding, but emphasized that he hopes the boost “will encourage everyone involved to step up the pace so they can produce science as soon as possible.” Even with the funding increase, NSF will need an additional $18 million to finish construction.

This is not the first time that Culberson has used his perch on the appropriations committee to nudge an agency to move faster on projects he favors. This year’s spending bill also includes $740 million to accelerate a two-part NASA mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. He more than doubled NASA’s $265 million request, to $545 million, to continue work on a spacecraft that will orbit Europa, and added $195 million for a lander that is not in NASA’s current plans.

“The Europa team at JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,] tells me they are further along on the Clipper and on the lander than they have been on any other mission,” he says. “So, the goal is to achieve launch dates on or close to the dates in the bill”—2022 for the Clipper and 2024 for the lander.

Building boom

A House of Representatives spending panel wants to nearly triple the size of the National Science Foundation’s major new facilities account.

(Graph) D. Malakoff and J. You/Science; (Data) National Science Foundation; U.S. House of Representatives

A trio of ships

This year, Culberson even took a front-loading approach to force feeding a project—renovating NSF’s fleet of oceanographic research vessels—which he has tried, in past years, to starve. NSF had originally proposed three ships, then pared down that number to two. In past years, Culberson’s panel would typically zero out funding for the ships, only to eventually accede to its Senate counterpart, which enthusiastically supports the vessels. In 2017 and 2018, for example, Congress gave money for three ships, despite NSF’s request for just two.

This year, NSF requested the last $28 million increment for two ships, totaling $255 million. But Culberson went big, putting in $127 million and noting that it was for the construction of three vessels. That increment would allow NSF to meet its original estimate of $355 million for the three ships, although it’s too early to say whether that will be sufficient.

The lack of funding in his previous spending bills didn’t mean he opposed the project, Culberson says. “I’ve always supported the additional ships because the NSF fleet plays a critical role in ocean exploration and helping to teach the next generation of students,” he says. “In past years we didn’t have the headroom for me to plus-up the funding levels as I had wanted to. But I got a little more room this year and you can see the results.”

Despite his singling out of the LSST and the ships for funding far beyond the agency’s request, Culberson insists that this year’s bill fulfills his promise to “depoliticize” NSF’s overall budget. Exhibit one, he says, is his refusal to specify funding levels for each of NSF’s six research directorates. The chairman of the House science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has tried repeatedly to reduce funding for the social sciences directorate and for the agency’s climate research, arguing that they are less vital to the country’s national interest and should be given a lower priority.

“I do not, and will not, fund NSF by directorate because I think it’s critical to protect NSF—and the space program and scientific inquiry in general—from political pressure from either the right or the left,” Culberson says. “Science should never be politicized. Scientists should always follow the facts, and as a policymaker, I need accurate, unbiased data to make good decisions.”

With reporting by Daniel Clery