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NSF Director France Córdova presented NSF’s 2016 budget at a rollout of the president’s science spending plans.

NSF Director France Córdova presented NSF’s 2016 budget at a rollout of the president’s science spending plans.

Paul Fetters

NSF's new budget reflects White House priorities on climate and environment

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a 5.2% increase, to $7.7 billion, in the 2016 budget that President Barack Obama sent to Congress this week. But it’s hard to find the fingerprints of NSF’s new director, France Córdova, on the document.

Instead, NSF’s splashiest initiatives for 2016 reflect the priorities of the Obama administration, especially in the areas of climate and the environment. One new effort would spend $75 million to study the strains on the world’s food, energy, and water systems from a growing population and a changing climate. A second would nearly triple, to $58 million, the size of a program begun this year to make the nation’s infrastructure more resilient to outside threats.

“This is something that the administration cares very deeply about,” Córdova said, referring to the two initiatives during a media briefing Monday at NSF headquarters after she unveiled the agency’s new budget. At the same time, those proposals could leave NSF open to attack from a Republican-led Congress that has been pushing it to focus on core, disciplinary activities and that dislikes most of what the administration wants to do on energy and environmental policy.

NSF’s budget—$7.3 billion this year—is an intricate mosaic of programs within NSF’s seven directorates that serve its core audience of academic researchers across all nonmedical disciplines. A few, notably NSF’s graduate research fellowships, date from shortly after the agency was created in 1950. Others, like one aimed at making cyberspace more secure, reflect problems that have only recently come to the forefront.

In trying to fund the best science, the agency seeks to strike the right balance between supporting individual investigators and large teams, as well as funding the facilities and infrastructure they require. Any director who wants the agency to grow—and all do—must also persuade both the White House and Capitol Hill that NSF is uniquely positioned to respond to new scientific opportunities. That requires hatching new programs—or at least putting old wine into new bottles.

Córdova came on board last March as NSF’s 14th director, giving her plenty of time to insert her own ideas into NSF’s 2016 budget. She was mostly reluctant to do that, however, and her approach may reflect a deliberate style of leadership that seeks consensus before taking action. That’s a sharp departure from her predecessor, Subra Suresh, who rode NSF staffers hard to implement his ideas before departing less than halfway through his 6-year term.

Suresh took the helm in late 2010 and in his first year rolled out half a dozen new initiatives. He branded them as OneNSF, a phrase meant to capture both the popularity of multidisciplinary research and the agency’s solid reputation among policymakers.

Despite his advocacy and the backing of the Obama administration, they met a mixed fate in Congress. The biggest hit is Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a program that teaches academics how to commercialize the fruits of their research. It would get a 14% bump in 2016, to $30 million—a significant amount of money for a program whose core element is a 10-week training program for three-person teams.

“This is something everybody wants to do,” Córdova said Monday in presenting NSF’s budget, noting that other federal agencies—and even Mexico—have crafted their own versions of I-Corps. “So I see it as a very positive program that has generated a lot of entrepreneurial energy.”

But another Suresh initiative, one that funds unorthodox ways to tackle fundamental research challenges, would languish in the 2016 budget. Suresh billed the INSPIRE program, a clunky acronym for Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education, as a way to counter the perception that NSF was too conservative in its choice of research projects. It created a fast track for proposals that would be judged by program managers, not expert panels. Given the recent attacks by Republicans on NSF’s peer-review system, however, those factors are no longer a major concern for most policymakers. And Córdova is using that shift in the political landscape to rethink the issue.

“Obviously, [INSPIRE] has a noble purpose—to do bold, high-risk things that couldn’t be done in another way,” she said. “But the question is, has it accomplished that goal? Or could those proposals been funded through collaborative efforts by all of the directorates?”

Córdova said she is awaiting the results of two assessments, due at the end of the year. In the meantime, she explained, “we will keep funding it at the same level”—which, at $28 million, is a far cry from the $120 million figure that Suresh envisioned for the program by 2016.

Córdova’s political skills will be put to the test this spring as she defends the two environmental initiatives. Both give NSF’s geosciences directorate a prominent role: A major component of the risk and resilience program, for example, would study what drives geohazards such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes, and why they vary. Social scientists are also expected to be major contributors.

That could be a problem for some influential Republicans, however. In December, Congress gave NSF an extra $173 million as part of the government-wide 2015 spending bill passed in that month—and told NSF which directorates should receive the largess. The list pointedly snubbed the geoscience and social science directorates, which are both heavily involved in the proposed 2016 initiatives.

Córdova said that NSF has followed that appropriations language to the letter in allocating its 2015 funds. But that restriction hasn’t stymied the agency’s plans for 2016, she noted. And her comments to reporters made it clear what she thought about the congressional attempt to single out certain disciplines.

“All of our directorates are interdisciplinary and very diverse, and it’s complicated to not fund one discipline,” she said. “Let me give you a good example. In December, I took 10 members of Congress to Antarctica, and they were captivated by the science we were doing there. In fact, one of them said, ‘Why don’t you take the extra $173 million in 2015 and do more of this stuff?’ ”

“And I said, without batting an eye, ‘This work was supported by geosciences, and that didn’t get plussed up.’ And they stopped and thought, ‘Oh my.’ ”

NSF’s new budget contains one initiative that does bear Córdova’s imprint: A $15 million effort to attract more women and non-Asian minorities into the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Córdova, the first NSF director of Hispanic descent, says NSF has fallen so far short of the goal of full participation that a fundamental rethinking of existing efforts is needed.

“We have a lot of work to do in this area,” she declared. “We already invest a lot. So, why do we still have this really big problem? Maybe there’s something in our approach that needs a complete overhaul.”

The money will be used to hold workshops for science educators and do outreach to groups NSF is trying to reach. Córdova thinks that one promising approach would take what she calls “boutique” activities at individual campuses and communities and scale up those that are working well. “The problem now is that the next state over doesn’t know anything about them,” she said. “You may as well have built a wall around your university. There are no communications between the nodes.”

Other highlights

Although these major initiatives dominate the 2016 budget, here are some additional nuggets that might interest researchers.

Major new facilities: NSF has a separate account to finance new construction of large facilities, like ships and telescopes, and Congress has tacitly agreed to put roughly $200 million a year into the account. So once one project is completed, another one can begin. Next year, NSF projects it will have $113 million available for a new start as it completes construction of a national network of ecological stations, and the competition is expected to be fierce.

Two marine projects are already well into the design stage. Ocean researchers have long pushed for a trio of new regional-class research vessels. But last month a National Academies report recommended that NSF build only two out of concern for the cost of operating them. There are also plans to extend the life of the polar research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer, commissioned in 1992, the icebreaking capacities of which allow it to operate in the Antarctic. A third proposal involves a range of upgrades to NSF’s Palmer and McMurdo Antarctic research stations. And astronomers would like NSF to invest in one of two 30-meter ground telescopes already under construction, one in Hawaii and one in Chile.

Ongoing programs: NSF’s budget made sure that a handful of programs that are traditionally favorites of Congress were treated well in its 2016 request. The CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development) program for young scientists would grow by $9 million, to $232 million. It would support 400 5-year awards to advance the research and educational activities of promising scientists. The EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program, for states that receive relatively few NSF awards, would grow by $10 million, to $169 million. The Noyce Teacher Scholarship program would remain level, at $62 million.

Graduate fellowships and traineeships: NSF plans to award 2000 Graduate Research Fellowships in 2016, the same number as this year. The number of 5-year fellowships was doubled 5 years ago, meaning that the program is now at its new capacity. The National Research Traineeship (NRT) program, a successor to the IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) awards, would also remain at its 2015 level of $62 million. But Córdova hinted that changes are coming. “I think you’ll see more of an emphasis on NRTs because of the growing concern about graduate education and whether they are being trained for opportunities outside the professoriate,” she told reporters. “The NSB [National Science Board] is about to put out a white paper on this. So I think the NRT has come along at just the right time, to look at how to modernize graduate education.”

Virtual reviews: NSF hopes that the percentage of panels that meet virtually rather than convening at its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters will rise from the current 31% to 40% by the end of fiscal year 2016. It will also reduce the amount of money it spends on reimbursing those virtual reviewers for their expenses, from $280 a day to $200 a day.

“We want them to participate, so we didn’t want to drop the number to zero,” explained Michael Sieverts, NSF’s chief budget officer. Those who come to NSF will continue to receive $480 for each day they serve on a panel, plus $280 for each travel day.

Staffing: NSF wants to add 15 people to its IT staff to handle the growing workload required to maintain websites that are publicly accessible. That would bring its regular workforce to 1325 full-time equivalent positions. It also hopes to increase the number of rotators—those who come from academia to work for a few years as scientific program officers and managers—from 191 to 196. Congress has pushed NSF to lower its costs by recouping more of the rotators’ salaries from their home institution and limiting their travel.

Relocation: NSF is scheduled to move into a new headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia, by the end of 2017. It has asked for $30 million in 2016—double what it received in 2015—to prepare for the move.

Click here to see all of our Budget 2016 coverage.