For the second time in 3 years, President Donald Trump has recommended deep cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia. And scientists are hoping Congress will again come to the agency’s rescue.
One month after signing a 2019 spending bill that gave NSF a record $8.1 billion budget, Trump has proposed shrinking it by $1 billion in 2020. The president’s $7.1 billion request was apparently so depressing that NSF’s director, France Córdova, did not participate in a media call yesterday to review the request. Instead, she left it to her aides to insist that NSF will continue “to push the frontiers” of knowledge despite the proposed 12.5% reduction.
The chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body in Alexandria, also sees a silver lining in the dark budget clouds. “NSF will persevere at $7.1 billion and do wonderful things,” says Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “And if it gets additional funds, its impact on research will be even greater.”
There’s some reason to think NSF could see an increase once the annual budget battle is over. Last year, Congress turned Trump’s proposed $295 million reduction into an increase of $308 million, and in 2018 it transformed a proposed $820 million cut into a $295 million boost.
NSF’s low-ball 2020 budget is part of the administration’s attempt to squeeze domestic discretionary programs while boosting military spending. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress oppose such an approach and in the past 2 years, Congress has reversed most of the administration’s proposed research cuts. But without an agreement on top-line numbers, the dispute is expected to extend beyond the 1 October start of the new fiscal year. NSF’s budget could be frozen at current levels if no agreement is reached, and an impasse could even trigger another government shutdown.
If adopted, the 2020 budget would be NSF’s smallest since 2013. NSF officials estimate that the foundation would make 1000 fewer new awards (the figure was 9000 in 2018) and that the success rate for grant applicants will dip by 1%, to 21%. The proposed cuts stretch across all six research directorates, as well as its education directorate.
Despite having $1 billion less to work with, Córdova found room to push ahead with a major new cross-disciplinary initiative, called NSF’s 10 Big Ideas. She’s seeking a total investment of $357 million in the multifaceted effort, up $75 million—some 26%—over projected spending this year.
Each of the six research areas, which span from navigating the Arctic to understanding the underlying rules of life, would receive $30 million in 2020 to go with $30 million apiece this year. Two of the six—Harnessing the Data Revolution and the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier—would also get $30 million each to accelerate private collaborations and build institutional capacity.
With both Congress and the science board backing more spending on new research facilities, NSF hopes to launch two such programs in 2020. The first, for projects costing between $6 million and $20 million, would be funded by adding $30 million to an existing $60 million pot spread across its research directorates. The second, to finance projects of between $20 million and $70 million, would tap into a $45 million allocation in 2020 within NSF’s major construction account.
The construction account, for which NSF has proposed $223 million, would also provide $98 million for the second year of a 5-year Antarctic modernization project. Its price tag has grown recently from $355 million to $410 million, fueled by the rising cost of steel, aluminum, and concrete as well as an overheated construction industry that has pushed up labor costs. NSF has also requested $33 million to begin a 5-year, $150 million upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. The account has room for these new starts because NSF has completed the 81-site, continentalwide National Ecological Observatory Network and has received full funding for three midsize research vessels now under construction.
In contrast, a few activities would be sharply curtailed in 2020 under the president’s budget. A politically popular program to help states with little NSF funding become more competitive would be trimmed by $25 million, or 14%. The number of new slots in NSF’s flagship graduate research fellowships, begun shortly after NSF was created in 1950, would dip next year to 1600, from 2000 in 2018. Programs across the foundation to support early career scientists would shrink by 13% from 2018 levels, and efforts to foster research at predominantly undergraduate institutions would plunge by 28% from 2018.
The deep overall cuts in the president’s budget would translate into $87 million less for its education directorate, now funded at $910 million. And that has prompted a realignment of several programs.
Funding for a precollege computer science initiative would shrink by more than half, to $10 million, despite the fact that computer science education is an administration priority. A scholarship program for would-be science and math teachers would shrink by 27%, to $47 million. A $40 million program to support colleges with large Hispanic populations would receive only $15 million.
There would also be a few winners. A long-running program at the nation’s community colleges to train more technical workers—another Trump administration priority—would grow by 14%, to $75 million. And the Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science program to foster diversity across all levels of science, a signature effort by the director, would receive an 11% bump, to $20 million.
*Correction, 19 March, 6 p.m.: This article has been updated to correct numbers in the fourth paragraph.