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An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.
Oregon State University

Final 2018 budget deal should help the National Science Foundation in 2019, too

The 4% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill hammered out by congressional leaders this week may be modest next to what its peer science agencies received. But it does offer NSF officials more breathing room to fund some major initiatives starting next year.

Under the 2019 budget request that President Donald Trump unveiled last month, NSF would have been forced to find money for those new initiatives within a budget that had been flat for the previous 2 years. But the new agreement, which could become law by tonight, gives NSF a $295 million raise over 2017 with only 6 months remaining in the current 2018 fiscal year.

Within the agency total of $7.767 billion, NSF’s research directorate would get a $301 million increase, to $6.33 billion. That new money comes with only one string attached: a $10 million bump, to $171 million, for NSF’s long-running program to help scientists in 28 have-not states and U.S. territories do better in competing for NSF funding. The agency can decide how to allocate the rest of the money.

That flexibility will help NSF prepare for a 2019 budget that officials pray will be no lower than the 2018 levels. If that happens, NSF officials expect to be able to add new initiatives without major disruptions to existing core programs.

One beneficiary would be a proposed $180 million investment in six of 10 “Big Ideas” that NSF Director France Córdova rolled out in 2016 as a way to highlight opportunities for cross-disciplinary research. The 2019 request also contains additional $60 million to spur the development of commercial applications from research in two of those areas. To accommodate those add-ons in a flat budget, the 2019 request proposed cuts to the bread-and-butter grants programs at NSF’s 30-odd disciplinary divisions. Given the 2018 bump, the agency may now be able to avoid those cuts.

The larger 2018 budget also improves the prospects for two other new starts housed in the research account. One is a $60 million a year program to invest in midscale research facilities (each costing between $4 million and $70 million). The second is a $103 million down payment for a $350 million renovation of its McMurdo Station, the hub of U.S. research activities in the Antarctic.

Fewer graduate fellowships

The final 2018 spending package adds $22 million to NSF’s education directorate, for a total of $902 million. Unlike in the six research directorates, however, appropriators dictated the exact amount for several education and training programs that target special populations within the scientific workforce.

In most cases, the final numbers for the education programs maintain the status quo and also are in line with what NSF has requested in 2019. But there are some notable exceptions. Legislators added $3 million to the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program for undergraduates planning to become science teachers, to $64.5 million; in contrast, NSF’s 2019 proposal would cut the program by some 35%, to $47 million. Likewise, NSF has proposed canceling a 2019 competition for a program to strengthen the computing skills of elementary and secondary school students to accommodate a 37% cut in the $51 million program, but the 2018 spending bill keeps the program at its current level.

The legislation also orders NSF to spend $30 million on a program for Hispanic-serving institutions, double the amount allocated in 2017. NSF delayed spending any money on that program last year, and would prefer to fold it into its overall efforts to help segments of the population now underrepresented in science and engineering.

At the same time, NSF may have won a round in an ongoing battle with legislators over the appropriate level of support for its prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) Program. For the past 2 years NSF has proposed reducing the annual total from 2000 to 1500, a cut of nearly $50 million in the $320 million a year program. (NSF had once hoped to grow the program to 3000 fellows a year.)

Last year Congress scotched the cut, and last summer Senate appropriators included language in their 2018 spending bill for the agency that would have maintained current levels. But the omnibus doesn’t mention the GRF Program. Nor does it flag a $283-million-a-year program to help early-career scientists that NSF wants to cut by 11% in 2019. Those omissions could be a sign that legislators might not quibble with cuts NSF has proposed in its 2019 request.

Congress and the Trump administration remain at loggerheads over how many regional-size research vessels NSF should be allowed to build. The omnibus sets the number at three, deferring to a strong wish by Senate appropriators, and gives NSF $105 million toward the overall $350 million cost. But NSF’s 2019 request, as in past years, assumes that it will only build two.

Multiple budgets offer options

It’s not clear how those and other disagreements will be resolved. However, NSF officials are veterans at navigating a budget roller-coaster. Every September, says Córdova, she submits multiple budgets to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Together, she says, they reflect not only the administration’s priorities, but also the hopes of the scientific community and the uncertainties surrounding the annual budget process in Congress. “One is actually a lot higher [than the final request], it’s aspirational, and one is lower,” she notes.

This year was an especially good time to have prepared budget options, because Congress and the president reached an agreement in early February to boost domestic spending by $130 billion over 2 years. The White House then revised its original 2019 budget to reflect the new realities, and NSF gained $2.2 billion in that revised budget. Córdova tapped the money for several things that would not have fit into the initial 30% cut that Trump had proposed for NSF.

Take the Big Ideas. NSF had already primed the pump by funding pilot projects in all six topics, which range from “understanding the rules of life” in biology to “navigating the new Arctic” in the geosciences. Two of the ideas, “harnessing big data” and “work at the human-technology frontier” have also been selected to receive $30 million each in 2019 for what NSF calls “convergence accelerators.” The awkward phrase means that scientists have already made discoveries that seem ripe for commercialization. “Could we have done it with a 30% cut? The answer is no,” Córdova says.

The midsize facilities initiative is a long-awaited push into funding novel projects that are too expensive for its major research instrumentation program but not large enough for a separate account that funds major new facilities. NSF says that there’s $10 billion in pent-up demand for such “midscale” facilities. The $60 million it has requested in 2019 would be invested in what Córdova calls “high-risk” ideas that need to be fleshed out. Then NSF would choose a few of the most promising ones and fund their actual fabrication.

NSF’s $295 million increase this year pales next to what other major federal sources of academic research funding are getting—a $3 billion hike for the National Institutes of Health, $868 million added to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the $457 million boost to science at NASA. But Congress seems to think that 4% for NSF is enough to keep the country ahead of its nearest and fast-closing scientific competitor. “This strong investment in basic research,” legislators write in a report accompanying the spending bill, “reflects Congress’ growing concern that China and other competitors are outpacing the United States in terms of research spending.”