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House spending panel does its best to hide large cut to NSF social and geosciences research

A congressional spending panel has proposed a 16% cut in funding next year for the social and geosciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). But you’ll need a magnifying glass and a calculator to come up with that number.

The reduction is buried in a report that accompanies a $51 billion spending bill for 2016 covering numerous federal agencies that was approved Wednesday by the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Kudos to Richard Jones of the American Institute of Physics, who did the math and reported it yesterday in his FYI blog.) The legislators disregarded pleas from NSF officials and science advocates not to tie the agency’s hands by designating funding levels for individual research directorates rather than the agency’s overall portfolio. It also intensifies a 2-year attack on those disciplines that until now has been led by the House science committee.

The science panel sets policies for NSF, and its controversial America COMPETES Act, which would reduce authorized spending levels for the two disciplines, passed the same day by the full House. But that panel does not control NSF’s purse. The $51 billion spending bill, on the other hand, does set budgets. It would give NSF a $50 million increase, to $7.4 billion—a 0.7% boost that is far short of the 5.2% requested by President Barack Obama.

That small increase masks a much bigger change in NSF’s budget: The reclassification by House Republicans of scientific disciplines into those deemed vital to the nation and those that should not be a priority under tight budget constraints. However, the spending bill seems to go out of its way to hide the budgetary implications of that distinction.  

Last week, when the bill was first marked up by the appropriations subpanel chaired by Representative John Culberson (R–TX), he told ScienceInsider, “I want to make the hard sciences a priority—the math and physics and pure science. The fundamental mission of NSF should be those core sciences.” To guide NSF, he said that four directorates—biology, engineering, computer science, and math and physical sciences—should receive 70% of the funding in NSF’s $6 billion research account. (They now receive about 65%.) The rest of the money would be divvied up among the two directorates—social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) and geosciences—and other research-related activities in the account.

But Culberson wasn’t telling the whole story. The bill’s report language, made public on Wednesday, reveals that Culberson has sheltered those other activities, which include an instrumentation program, graduate research fellowships, and a long-running initiative to help states that receive small amounts of NSF funding, by freezing their budgets at 2015 levels. That stipulation, combined with the application of the 70% rule, leaves SBE and geo with only $1.32 billion between them in 2016. That’s a $255 million drop from their current combined total of $1.57 billion, a reduction of 16.2%. Those numbers never actually appear in the report language, however.

With Washington clearing out for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, science advocates were scrambling to keep up with the news. But they clearly aren’t happy.

"APA strongly opposes the proposed National Science Foundation funding limitations included in the FY16 House appropriations bill just passed out of subcommittee,” says Heather O'Beirne Kelly, head of government relations for the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., whose members include researchers as well as practitioners. “As a nation, we simply cannot afford to roll back support for science—particularly the sciences that ask and address questions critical to understanding human behavior and societal problems.”