House Science Committee Chairman Signals Cuts for SBE and GEO

March 15th, 2017

It’s déjà vu all over again. During the 114th Congress (2015-2016), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee led an effort to “reprioritize” research funding at the National Science Foundation. On the losing end of the plan were two Directorates: Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences as well as Geosciences (GEO). Although the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015 passed the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate reauthorizers had in mind a different plan for NSF, and they did not include targeted cuts to areas of science. The effort to reprioritize did make its way into an appropriations bill that same year, but in the end, the SBE Directorate was flat-funded, and the Geosciences Directorate saw an increase in funding.

The House Science Committee Chairman is now signaling his plan for a cut to SBE and GEO in a new NSF reauthorization bill to be introduced in the 115th Congress. In a letter to the Chair of the Committee on Budget, Congressman Smith submitted the Views and Estimates of the House Science Committee for Fiscal Year 2018. The letter states:

“The Committee will require that NSF research funding be appropriated at the Directorate level with 70 percent of the research funding allocated to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, the Biological Sciences Directorate, and the Engineering Directorate.”

At this stage, we do not know the level of funding for NSF as a whole, or its research account in particular. However, given budget constraints, funding is likely to remain tight. More importantly, this language is similar to that included in appropriations report language two years ago, which would have cut the SBE Directorate by around 45%.

The Views and Estimates letter also stated that the Committee will “ensure that federally funded research conducted through NSF. . . is in the national interest. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act that passed late last year expanded the NSF’s broader impacts criteria to include “national interest” criteria similar to that in the earlier House reauthorization bill (see AICA bill, Section 102(c), page 7).

Just the day before, at a hearing of the Committee on Science’s House Research and Technology Subcommittee, NSF Director France Cordova made the case for NSF and the research it supports. Despite the overall tenor of the meeting, the reprioritization efforts loomed. Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) included in his opening remarks that the Committee “should not make the mistake of changing funding priorities.”

The full Committee Chairman, at his first opportunity to speak, described the need to “rebalance priorities” and to ensure that the national interest criteria weeds out the “wrong ideas and subjects.” Pushing the point further, Chairman Smith later asked NSF Director Cordova “How will you enforce national interest criteria on a grant-by-grant basis?” and “How many grants have succeeded and how many have not” [under this criteria]?

It’s going to be another long year for the behavioral and social sciences. Scientists should be prepared to get engaged — and in a big way.

See the House Science Committee’s Views and Estimates Letter.