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House and Senate Committees Review NSF Funding Proposals

The funding process for federal agencies and programs follows, in theory, a two step process. First, Congress considers authorizing legislation, which can establish, continue, eliminate, or modify federal programs. While these bills provide funding guidance, they do not directly appropriate funds. It is common for federal agencies to continue to operate even when authorizations expire. Following authorization, Congress passes appropriations bills to fund government operations. Appropriations do not always match the authorized funding levels, and can be subject to much broader negotiations over federal spending.

This is an exciting time to be following the National Science Foundation (NSF) as both chambers are considering aspirational reauthorizations to NSF. House and Senate Committees on Appropriations held hearings during the week of April 12 to consider the Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations for the NSF, and the agency’s long-term funding authorizations.

Last week, House and Senate Appropriators heard testimony from NSF Director Panchanathan regarding the agency’s Fiscal Year (FY) 22 funding and the President’s recent budget request. The President’s budget proposes a 20 percent funding increase and a new directorate focused on technology. This is consistent with a request circulated by FABBS and the Coalition for National Science Funding, asking for at least $10 billion for NSF in FY22. Director Panchanathan laid out his vision for NSF, while Members of Congress questioned him on President Biden’s proposal, the Agency’s needs, and making the most of federal research investments.   

Director Panchanathan consistently referred to three core pillars comprising his vision for the future of NSF:

  • Advancing the frontiers of research into the future
  • Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity
  • Securing global leadership in science and technology.

He explained that investments outlined in the President’s budget would allow NSF to work at “speed and scale” to integrate curiosity-inspired research and use-inspired outcomes to maintain the United States’ global advantage in research and development. The Director emphasized the importance of basic research as the starting point for major economic and societal progress, noting that NSF research enabled the development of the internet. He also discussed how President Biden’s proposed new directorate would work across research directorates, supporting translational research to accelerate the development of new technologies and innovations.

Members of Congress expressed unanimous support for basic research, but expressed some concerns about how NSF might use this large increase in funding. In the House, Ranking Member Aderholt (R-AL) and others asked about geographic diversity in NSF activities and awards. The Director enthusiastically assured them that his vision of “accessibility and inclusivity” extends to all kinds of diversity, including geographic diversity. He maintained that NSF must serve all States, and that tapping into underrepresented communities will strengthen our scientific enterprise.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) pointedly questioned whether new investments in use-inspired translational research may be more effectively directed to the Department of Energy, which has experience in large practical projects through the National Labs. Director Panchanathan noted that NSF has experience with similar projects and has worked alongside the National Labs in the past. He emphasized that the proposed new Directorate would be able to work closely with the existing directorates, creating a clearer pipeline from basic research to innovation.

Global competition, specifically with China, remained a constant thread throughout the hearings. Director Panchanathan explained that NSF funds about 20 percent of proposals, despite deeming 30 percent of proposals worthy of funding. Competitors are filling the void, he suggested, and funding high quality research which NSF lacks the resources to support. This represents a missed opportunity for the US, and a boon to our competitors. The Director claimed, however, that this is not cause to look inward, but a reason to increase our own investments while doubling down on cooperation with good faith partners in Europe and around the world.

FABBS recently joined over 100 organizations and coalitions on a letter requesting that the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees provide the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Subcommittees with ample resources for strong budgets for the federal agencies in their jurisdiction, including the NSF. In years past, the CJS subcommittees have expressed a desire to increase funding for the NSF yet had been unable to due to inadequate subcommittee allocation.

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