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The National Science Foundation Headquarters

Headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia

National Science Foundation

NSF’s 2015 budget: A small increase and a big pat on the back

Funding for the social sciences at National Science Foundation (NSF) is safe for another year, and the agency will be able to participate fully in the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative. But NSF may not have enough money to boost stipends for its prestigious graduate research fellowships, and it will have to pinch pennies in planning a 2017 move to a new building in northern Virginia.

Those are some of the NSF highlights tucked within a $1.01 trillion budget agreement reached last night to fund nearly the entire federal government through 30 September 2015. Congress is expected to approve the 1600-page package in the next few days before adjourning.

NSF fared extremely well compared with most federal agencies, which received flat or reduced funding. It gets an increase of 2.4% increase, to $7.344 billion. That amount is $89 million above the president’s request, which would have been a 1.2% boost, although it falls short of the $222 million hike that the House of Representatives had approved in May.

Within that total, NSF’s six research directorates would grow by $125 million, or 2.8%, to $5.93 billion. In contrast, the Obama administration had proposed no boost for research. The increase will allow the agency to double, to $29 million, its spending on cognitive and neuroscience in light with the administration’s ambitious cross-agency plan to develop neurotechnologies to better explore brain function.

NSF had requested a 6.3% boost for its education directorate, to $890 million. Congress chose to be less generous, but it is still willing to give the agency a 2.4% boost, to $866 million. A big chunk of the proposed increase was earmarked for a $2000 hike in the $32,000 annual stipend given to NSF’s graduate research fellowships. The program has supported 42 Nobelists over its 60-plus years. That pay boost may now be delayed. At the same time, the directorate likely will have enough money to move forward with a major expansion of programs to improve undergraduate learning in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, as well as a $7 million initiative to help universities redesign their graduate training programs.

The final spending bill averts a squeeze on NSF’s operations budget, which was projected to grow by $40 million to accommodate the 1300-person agency’s move from Arlington to Alexandria in suburban northern Virginia. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the subcommittee that funds NSF, had sliced $31 million from the agency’s request for its daily operations, saying NSF needed to economize on the move. In the end, Congress agreed to give NSF two-thirds of what it had requested in its operations and management account.

The final 2015 agreement has surprisingly few directives on how NSF should spend its money. On Mikulski’s insistence, it includes $3 million for an initiative to offer more STEM opportunities to minority students, from preschool through college. But it drops Senate language calling for a $7.5 million program to attract minority students into the life sciences and $5 million for a new effort aimed at colleges and universities with large Hispanic populations. Instead, it defers to language in the May spending bill adopted by the House of Representatives, saying that NSF must devote at least $30 million from existing programs to broaden participation by Hispanic students in STEM activities.

Both House and Senate versions of the NSF spending bill had defended its beleaguered research programs in the social sciences, under sharp attack by the House science committee and its chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX). The final agreement does not specifically mention those disciplines. But under the arcane procedures under which these spending bills are crafted, silence represents full-throated support for the status quo. In this case, that means NSF is free to spend the $272 million it has requested for its social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate, a $15 million boost over 2014 levels.

To see all of our stories on the 2015 budget, click here.