NSF Reauthorization

The House Science and Technology Committee is set to hold two markups for a National Science Foundation reauthorization bill that Chairman Gordon would like to pass this year. The Research and Science Education subcommittee will hold their markup on April 19 and the full committee will have the markup on April 25. The committee has already had two hearings on the NSF reauthorization in March.
CRA has seen some draft language and we think it looks pretty good. It includes authorization of funding at levels that fit with the goals of the ACI and the Democratic Innovation Agenda to double NSF over the next seven years. We are particularly pleased with language that could help programs aimed at increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in science. The language allows the NSF Director the option of continuing funding for these programs after their initial grant award expires if they’re demonstrating success and the problem they seek to address persists.
The language implicitly attempts to clarify NSF’s role in supporting efforts that seek to encourage the participation of women and underrepresented groups in computing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (CSTEM) disciplines. This is a response to long-standing concerns from CRA and other members of the computing and science communities about NSF’s role. In a letter to the Chairman Gordon back in February, CRA along with 11 other organizations laid out the issue:

NSF, in fulfillment of its mission to “strengthen the U.S. scientific and engineering research potential,” has been very supportive of efforts designed to reach out to women and underrepresented groups in CSTEM. Recognizing the magnitude of the problem within computing, NSF has funded efforts within its Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate to address it, including the current Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) initiative. These programs have good track records of funding efforts within the community that have demon- strated effectiveness — for example, programs and institutions like the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), the Computer Science Teachers Association, and CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing (CRA-W), which received the President’s Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2004.
Our concern is that NSF, while very willing to fund new programs to address these underrepresentation issues, does not have a funding model to support successful efforts on anything approaching a sustaining basis. Unfortunately, there are no other agencies that have shown a willingness to adopt these successful programs once orphaned by NSF, and it has so far proven difficult for industry to fund them on a sustaining level. So successful efforts — even those that have been independently evaluated and demonstrated effective — must be restructured substantially to include new approaches in order to satisfy NSF’s guidelines about new programs and receive new funding when their original grants expire (typically in 3 to 5 years). As you can imagine, this is incredibly counter-productive, especially as the need for these programs remains great.

So we are particularly pleased with the language that allows (but does not mandate) NSF to continue funding programs with proven track records to encourage underrepresented groups to enter CSTEM fields for an additional funding cycle without needing to make significant revisions to the programs. By including the language, it seems clear that the committee is endorsing the view that it’s an appropriate a part of the NSF mission to support these efforts, and giving the agency the flexibility to continue those programs that appear to be working.
We’ll keep you posted on the bill as it moves through the markup process.
Update: HR 1867, the NSF Authorization Act of 2007, was passed today by voice vote out of the Subcommittee on Research and Education with three amendments. The amendments included a request for a yearly report by NSF on the agencies Education and Human Resources funding allocation, a joint report from NSF and the National Academies on the barriers to STEM participation for underrepresented minorities and policy strategies to correct the low participation, and a requirement to fund undergraduate research awards at a sustainable level by calling it out of the general NSF Research and Related Activities account. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-IL), while not objecting to the last amendment, did cite concerns about designating funds within the general allocation and that doing so could eventually create a line item in the budget that would be vulnerable to cuts in the future.
The full Science and Technology Committee will mark up the bill next week.