House Appropriations Committee Passes CJS Funding; Mixed News for NSF

On May 20th the full House Appropriations Committee passed the Commerce, Justice, Science funding bill; this is important to our community because it is the bill that contains the funding for the National Science Foundation, which funds 89 percent of all university-led fundamental computer science research in the U.S. First, the not-so-bad news: NSF doesn’t exactly get a budget cut in actual dollars; it in fact gets a small bump (though when inflation is considered, that bump may go away completely). The worse news: NSF gets some onerous language on how to spend the tax-dollars it’s allocated. Let’s get into the details.

NSF received $7.34 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, the present budget we are working under. For FY16, the President requested $7.72 billion, or an increase of $379.3 million (or 5.2 percent) over FY15 levels. In the House Appropriations bill, the agency would receive $7.39 billion in FY16, an increase of $50 million (or 0.7 percent). Again, it’s an increase in actual dollars – so things could have been worse. But the bill contains some disheartening language restricting the agency’s activities.

The most significant section concerns restricting how money in NSF’s Research and Related Activities account, where most of the money for research resides, can be spent. The relevant section reads:

The Committee directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities. Further, the Committee directs that NSF allocate no less than the fiscal year 2015 levels for the Office of International Science and Engineering; Integrative Activities; and the U.S. Arctic Commission.

This language would force Geosciences (funded at $1.3 billion in FY15) and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (funded at $272 million in FY15) to share roughly $1.32 billion in funding. The combined budget of the two directorates in FY15 was $1.58 billion, so this language translates into a cut of about $257 million to the two directorates, or 16.3 percent. This is in line with the authorization levels passed by the House Science Committee in their bill H.R. 1806 the America COMPETES Act of 2015, which CRA has stated it opposes.

Of almost equal concern, the Appropriations Committee included the following section concerning, “Transparency and accountability:”

The Committee supports section 106 of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, H.R. 1806, as reported, that enhances transparency and accountability of NSF grants by requiring that public award abstracts articulate how the projects serve the national interest. The Committee understands that NSF has already taken steps to implement these transparency processes. NSF is directed to comply with section 106 and provide periodic updates to the Committee on its transparency activities.

As our readers will recall from last year, a similar section to Section 106 is one of the areas that CRA has had significant concerns over, as it puts unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on the agency and is already covered in legislation which founded NSF. While the original language in the section was much worse than what the committee ended up with in COMPETES, we believe it still creates an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and provides a “fix” to a process that isn’t truly broken.

The only other issue of note to our community is a short section on high-performance computing. The committee’s language urges NSF to continue its commitment to the field by modernizing its facilities. Here is the relevant text:

The Committee urges NSF to continue its commitment to modernizing its world-class big data and high-performance computing, which support all areas of scientific research and education, including the most demanding scientific challenges.

So, where do things go from here? The bill now moves to the House floor for consideration; it is likely to pass along a party-line vote, just as it did in committee. It is expected on the House floor as early as today but probably take a day or two to get to a final vote. On the other side of Congress, the Senate Appropriations Committee still needs to complete its own CJS bill. When that will happen also isn’t yet known; the Senate has been the bottleneck in the Appropriations process for the last number of years. But with a new Republican majority, there is a chance that the chamber will move more quickly. Even if that happens, we would not expect a Senate CJS bill until the end of June, at the earliest. We can hope for a better outcome there, but that is not guaranteed. Assuming the Senate gets their bill together, the two chambers will then have to come up with an agreed upon bill in conference, which would then have to be passed by both chambers, before being sent to the President’s desk. That’s still a long way away, so we will have to wait to see how events unfold over the coming summer.

Be sure to check back for more updates on the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.