On May 22nd the House Science Committee took up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (or FIRST) Act of 2014. The bill’s lead sponsor is the House Science Committee chairman, Lamar Smith (R-TX). This bill is to reauthorize the majority of the America COMPETES Act of 2010, and focuses on the non-energy agencies (NSF, NIST, and OSTP). Sadly, this piece of legislation is neither as visionary for American science, nor as supportive of said science, as its predecessor bill.

To get right into the problems with the bill, first, it only authorizes the agencies for two years; one of which is the current fiscal year (FY14) we are operating in and have approved appropriations. The previous versions of the COMPETES Act authorized the agencies for three years. There were attempts by the Democratic minority to amend the legislation to include a third year, but those were defeated on a party line vote.

In addition, the FIRST Act authorizes very small increases (~1.5 percent) for NSF and NIST (1 percent) in FY15. The FY14 authorized numbers are the same as what was appropriated in the Omnibus, but with one exception: it strips $100 million in authorization from the Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences Directorate at NSF. That money seems to be spread around within the other NSF directorates, including about $70 million for CISE in FY15. Again, there were amendments offered by Democrats to reverse these cuts, but they ultimately failed as all the Republicans voted against them. Though these authorized levels are slightly higher than what is in the President’s FY15 budget request, they still don’t keep up with inflation.

Here is a more complete look at the comparison of the FIRST Act budget numbers versus the last reauthorization of the COMPETES Act.

In addition, the Chairman included troubling language requiring NSF to affirm that all grant awards funded by the Foundation are “worthy of Federal funding” and in the national interest “as indicated by having the potential to achieve:”

  • increased economic competitiveness in the US;
  • advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;
  • development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the US;
  • increased partnerships between academia and industry;
  • support for the national defense;
  • promotion of the progress of science.

This is being referred to as “NSF Accountability,” and is an improvement over what had been circulated in draft versions of the bill. Smith’s original draft was problematic because it required that prior to the award of any funding NSF had to publish on a website the justification for that award (based on the above criteria), along with the name of the employee or employees who made the determination. The version that was included in the final bill strips that language and just requires that public announcement of the award include “a written justification from a responsible Foundation official” that the grant meets the criteria. It’s somewhat better, though it still provides a hook for Congress to call that “responsible Foundation official” on the carpet for any dubious (in their, i.e. Congressional, minds) grant. Of course, Congress already has that power.

In one point of good news for the CS community, the bill includes reauthorization of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. CRA, along with IEEE-USA, SIAM, and USACM, endorsed this a year ago when it was introduced in a stand-alone bill as the Advancing America’s NITRD Act.

Some other news that came out of this markup:

  • An amendment by Rep. Broun (R-GA) passed on a voice vote to cut the FY15 authorized levels for the Office of Science Technology Policy by $1M (original it would $5.55M; now it is $4.55M);
  • There was a bipartisan amendment to change the Open Access provisions in the bill to be more in line with what OSTP and the Obama Administration are already doing on this subject.

To get a fuller picture of what happened at the hearing, here are two good articles by Jeffrey Mervis at Science.

The next step for the FIRST Act will be consideration on the full House floor. Passage is likely, though in what form is an interesting question. There is always a possibility that fiscally conservative elements of the Republican Party will propose amendments to strip out even more funding. As well, there could be other amendments to restrict what types of research the science agencies can spend Federal funds on. Whether any of those types of amendments will pass the full House is an open question. As well, it’s unlikely that there will be any successful amendments to restore or increase funding; the environment of Washington is one of austerity right now.

The two possible silver linings in all this is that, first, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is expected to release their version of a COMPETES reauthorization any week now. The hope within the science community is that it will be a more true reauthorization of COMPETES and will be more bipartisan in nature. The second silver lining is that FIRST is an authorizing bill, which means this is only covers how NSF can spend its money (rather than an appropriations bill which determines how much money NSF gets). Current year funding for NSF has already been determined and is unlikely to be impacted by this bill, assuming it gets signed into law. As well, next year’s funding levels have already passed the House Appropriations Committee, and they did not incorporate the FIRST Act levels in what they approved (FYI: The CJS bill will be on the House floor today for voting; we are expecting amendments to be offered to bring it in line with the SBE authorizations in FIRST, but it’s an open question as to whether they will pass). We’ll keep our readers posted on further developments with this legislation.

NSF’s Budget Request Flat for FY15

On March 25, 2014, in Funding, FY15 Appropriations, by Peter Harsha

Given the relatively austere budget caps for FY2015 the President and Congress agreed to as part of last December’s budget agreement, the President’s relatively flat budget request for the National Science Foundation in FY2015 isn’t unexpected. In fact, the President’s request for NSF would have the agency grow just 1 percent over FY14 (to $7.3 billion), while research at the agency would actually decrease by $3 million under the President’s plan ($5.191 billion in FY14 vs. $5.188 billion in FY15).CISEBudgetFY15

Funding for NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate, the home of the great bulk of NSF’s computing research and infrastructure investments, follows a similar trajectory in the President’s budget. Under the President’s plan, the CISE budget would remain at essentially the same level ($893 million) as in FY14 ($894 million). Coming after two years in which CISE did disproportionately “well” in the budget calculus, this flat budget is a little easier to bear. But it does mean that CISE AD Farnam Jahanian had to do a little reshuffling to protect priorities within the CISE budget. In particular, the directorate’s contributions to a number of cross-agency initiatives would be scaled back somewhat in order to take care of “core” research funding within the directorate.

In his letter to the computing research community, Jahanian noted four areas of priority within the directorate request: expansions of CISE foundational research; investments in crosscutting programs led by CISE; investments in advanced cyberinfrastructure, and education and workforce development.

In addition to CISE’s investments in its core foundational research, the directorate will remain a player in a number of key cross-agency programs, albeit in a slightly reduced role in some cases. Here are some details:

Cyber Enabled Materials, Manufacturing, and Smart Systems (CEMMSS): This is a $213 million program across the Foundation geared towards accelerating advances in “21st century smart engineered systems.” CISE’s investment of $81.5 million in FY15 (down from $85 million in FY14) would focus on advanced manufacturing, cyber physical systems, the National Robotics Initiative, Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP) and their interaction and synthesis.

Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering (CIF21): The Foundation would spend $125 million across all the major research directorates in FY15, with CISE contributing $80 million (down from $85 million in FY14). CISE’s focus includes work on Big Data, data infrastructure building blocks, building new computational and data-enabled science and engineering research communities, advancing new computational infrastructure and building partnerships.

Cognitive Science and Neuroscience: NSF’s contribution to the White House’s BRAIN initiative (with NSF, NIH and DARPA), would be $29 million foundation-wide in FY15. CISE would contribute $5.65 million vs. $3.5 million in FY14. CISE’s focus is on addressing the challenges of research integration across multiple scales and builds on ongoing NSF investments like the Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience collaboration with NIH, Germany and France.

Innovation Corps (I-Corps): The Foundation would invest $25 million in this program designed to accelerate innovations from the lab to the market. CISE’s contribution would grow to $10 million (up from $8 million in FY14), and Jahanian noted that given the level of interest in the program from the community, the directorate could easily invest twice as much.

Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC): The Foundation would spend $100 million on SaTC in FY15 under the President’s plan, and $67 million of that investment would be in the CISE directorate. The focus of CISE’s effort in this space is to support fundamental scientific advances and technologies to protect cyber-systems from malicious behavior, while preserving privacy and promoting usability.

Jahanian’s presentation from the NSF budget roll-out goes into additional detail about these programs and the other efforts the directorate plans for FY15, and the official justification to Congress contains even more detail. The President’s “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” — his supplemental budget request, should Congress feel the need to spend more than the caps they agreed to — includes $552 million in new spending for NSF, some of which would find its way into CISE for investments in cybersecurity, clean energy/sustainable computing, and core research activities. However, this is essentially dead on arrival in Congress. Sorry.

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So, the good news this year was that the President and Congress were working from the same set of numbers for the first time in a long time. The bad news is that those numbers are pretty underwhelming. The President introduced his FY15 budget request today, a budget that would remain largely flat — increasing discretionary spending just $2 billion over FY14 ($1.014 trillion in FY15 vs. $1.012 trillion in FY14). NSF would grow just 1 percent (to $7.3 billion) under the “base budget” in the President’s plan. Research at NSF would actually decrease $3 million under the President’s plan ($5.191 billion in FY14 vs. $5.188 billion in FY15). (We’ll have lots more information about NSF’s budget request next Monday when the agency rolls out its detailed budget justification.)

Recognizing that the agreed-to budget caps were overly constraining for all the Administration’s priorities, the President included a $52 billion “wish list” of additional funding proposals — called the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” — that includes increased funding for key science agencies that could be offset by cuts to farm subsidy programs, tax increases on “multi-million dollar retirement accounts,” and other spending cuts and tax increases identified by the Administration. Were that wish list to be approved by Congress, NSF could see an additional $552 million in funding (and R&D agencies overall would see an increase of $5.3 billion) However, congressional Republicans have already declared the wish list DOA.

Funding for other agencies in the President’s base budget is a bit of a mixed bag:

  • DOE basic and applied research would be up 6.1 percent in the President’s plan ($8.412 billion in FY 15 vs. $7.932 billion in FY14)
  • DOD basic and applied research would see an increase of 4.4 percent ($6.582 billion vs. $6.307 billion
  • NIST basic and applied research would increase 3.3 percent ($598 million vs $579 million)
  • NIH basic and applied research would increase 0.7 percent ($29.403 billion vs. $29.205 billion)
  • Homeland Security basic and applied research would decrease 1 percent ($250 million vs. $251 million).

Keep in mind that the expected inflation rate between FY 2014 and FY 2015 is about 2 percent.

The White House has released an R&D Budget Fact sheet that goes into some of the details.

But we’ll learn more about the agency priorities as the agencies roll out their own budget request over the next week or so.

As always, we’ll have the details as we learn them!

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