A rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built in Chile

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

U.S. legislators back larger facilities budget for NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, is in line for a budget increase of 4% to 5% next year. That assessment is based on bills approved recently by the spending committees in both chambers of Congress. Lawmakers have also signaled support for growing the account that NSF uses to build major new scientific facilities.

It could be months before Congress passes a final NSF spending bill for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts on 1 October. So agency officials aren’t banking on either the $8.175 billion approved by the House of Representatives appropriations committee last month nor the $8.069 billion budget adopted last week by its Senate counterpart. Competition from other domestic programs also could chip away at the amount NSF receives.

Still, if ultimately enacted, an increase in the range of $300 million to $400 million over NSF’s current $7.767 billion budget would be the second straight vote of confidence in the agency from Congress. And it would mark the second year that lawmakers have rejected President Donald Trump’s plans for the agency, which called for deep cuts in 2018 and flat funding in 2019.

Big tools for science

The most interesting wrinkle in the congressional spending bills for NSF is a huge boost to its Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. That account was created a quarter-century ago so that the agency could build costly new facilities—telescopes, ships, and various types of observatories—without bankrupting its bread-and-butter support for individual investigators. The account typically supports three to five projects at a time; as one big instrument nears completion, NSF slides a new one into the mix.

This year, NSF asked for $94 million to complete work on two midsize research vessels and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, as well as continuing construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile. That’s the smallest MREFC request since 2002, and roughly half what it received this year.

Legislators decided NSF should be thinking bigger. House appropriators have boosted the MREFC account to $268 million, whereas their Senate counterparts have approved $249 million. Instead of $29 million to finish two ships, the House would give NSF $127 million to pay for most of a third ship. It also added $75 million to the LSST’s request for $49 million. The Senate, which has long advocated building three new vessels, was slightly less generous, adding $60 million for the third ship.

But senators made another adjustment to the MREFC account that, in effect, frees up almost $100 million for ongoing research across disciplines. NSF requested $103 million to start upgrading its science operations at McMurdo Station in the Antarctic. Agency officials housed the 8-year, $355 million Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) program within the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) because they felt it aligned better with ongoing activities on the continent.

But Senate appropriators decided AIMS belonged in the MREFC and shifted $95 million of the request to that account. Luckily for scientists, they didn’t take an equivalent bite out of the budget of the geosciences directorate, which manages OPP.

As a result, the Senate mark of $6.556 billion for NSF research programs, including the geosciences, matches the House’s mark of $6.651 billion available for NSF’s six research directorates. The House figure represents a 5% boost over the current $6.334 billion for research.

“It’s a hidden bonus … a subtle but significant move,” says research lobbyist Joel Widder of Federal Science Partners in Washington, D.C. NSF officials declined to comment on the shift, but expressed appreciation for what they called “strong” support for NSF by legislators in both chambers of Congress.