This week, in four different Congressional hearings, members of Congress got their first chance to weigh in on the multiple proposed changes to the National Science Foundation. Two of these hearings were with Congressional appropriators and concerned President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 “skinny” budget request that was released last week. The other two hearings were with the science authorizing committees – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened Thursday to consider “Reimagining our Innovation Future,” including some discussion of their newly introduced National Science Foundation for the Future Act, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee covered the yet to be reintroduced Endless Frontier Act from Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Young (R-IN). The good news is the initial reactions were mostly positive. However, there are concerns by some members about NSF’s ability to handle a large infusion of funds and whether it’s the right agency to secure the country’s competitiveness.
Before the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee on Tuesday, and then its House counterpart on Wednesday, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan defended the Administration’s budget request, a 20 percent increase for the agency, and made the case that, “under the administration’s…budget request, NSF will supercharge investments and work collaboratively with our federal counterparts and other partners to rapidly catalyze results in areas of national importance.”
Many of the questions that Dr. Panchanathan responded to concerned whether NSF could handle such a large increase of its budget. He made the case that NSF is not able to currently fund all of the proposals that it deems to be of high merit. As Science Magazine pointed out:
He told Senate appropriators that NSF would use the money to make more grants and expand their size and duration. Specifically, he said, the average grant would grow from $200,000 to $300,000 and from 3 years to 4 or 5 years. The percentage of submitted proposals accepted by the agency would rise from about 20% to 30% or higher, allowing NSF to fund billions of dollars of ideas that under current funding constraints are deemed worthy of support but rejected.
“It’s only 50% of what we could fund,” Panchanathan told the counterpart House spending panel the next day. “And we don’t want to leave those ideas on the floor because they might be picked up by our competitors.”
In a separate effort before the Senate Commerce Committee, the proposals within the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which has not yet been introduced but is highly-anticipated, were discussed. Because of lack of legislative text, the hearing didn’t delve into specifics of the proposal. However, as in the Appropriation hearings, Members of Congress voiced general support for NSF but raised concerns about whether NSF can handle these new funds and if it’s the right agency for this mission. Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the previous administration, and one of the witnesses called by the committee, made the point that “NSF funding is a national imperative” and that the Foundation has been underfunded for decades. All the witnesses voiced strong support that NSF is well positioned to use the proposed increases and to do more.
On the House side, the Science, Space and Technology Committee chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) convened to discuss how to ensure continued U.S. leadership in science and technology, as well as how to harness the U.S. research enterprise and all of the nation’s talent to develop solutions to the nation’s most pressing challenges. A panel that included former CRA Board Member and current President of Carnegie Mellon University Farnam Jahanian, along with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, current PCAST co-chair nominee Frances Arnold, and former Chairman of Lockheed Martin Norm Augustine, all made the case that the U.S. research ecosystem remains the envy of the world, but sustained Federal investments are necessary to ensure we don’t cede that leadership to countries – particularly China – who are ramping up their own investments considerably to compete. Members on the committee seemed to acknowledge that need and express support for efforts like the NSF for the Future Act and Ranking Member Frank Lucas’ (R-OK) Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which would also authorize NSF on a path to doubling its budget.
What happens now? This process will need to play out more before we have an any good answers. From the sound of it, Congressional appropriators are supportive of increasing NSF’s funding. How much of an increase — the 20 percent the President is proposing, or less — is an open question. And there remains some skepticism among some members about proposals to establish a technology development directorate within NSF, but also a fair amount of support. The devil is in the details, of course, which both the President’s skinny budget and the to-be-reintroduced EFA don’t yet provide. Once more details are released, the debate will continue, and we’ll have a better idea of which proposals have more support and how things will play out. This is a process that could take the better part of the year (or more), so please check back for more updates.