Challenges Remain for NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences in FY 2019

March 28, 2018

The House Committee on Space, Science and Technology (SST) held a hearing on March 16, 2018, to review the Administration’s 2019 fiscal year budget proposal for the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Witnesses present at the hearing included Dr. France Cordova, Director of the NSF; Dr. Maria T. Zuber, Chair of the National Science Board (NSB); and Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, CEO of the NSF.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and other Republican members of the committee stated their recognition of the important role that NSF plays in ensuring that the U.S. continues to remain a global leader in science and technology (S&T), but expressed continued concerns with accountability and transparency in the NSF grant-making process. In particular, they expressed concerns with what they view as “wasteful” research grants funded by the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate, and indicated that NSF should prioritize funding for disciplines such as quantum physics, computer science, and artificial intelligence. Smith stated, “I have been critical of the NSF for funding too many projects that seem marginal or frivolous…. I believe there has been improvement, but challenges remain.” He added, “Social-behavioral science can help solve some complex problems that touch several areas of science [citing the need for both computer science and behavioral science in protecting against hackers]…. But when only one out of five requests for grants is being funded, there must be priorities.”

Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and other Democratic members of the SST Committee expressed concerns over NSF’s stagnant budget for the last 7 years, reiterating that the U.S. needs to increase federal investment in research and development in order for the U.S. to remain competitive with foreign competitors, such as India and China.  These Members expressed support for NSF’s Big Ideas and convergence research, but emphasized that funding these initiatives should not come at the expense of funding core disciplinary research that is vital for these initiatives to succeed. Minority members also expressed their disappointment with the disproportionate cuts directed towards the SBE sciences, and emphasized the value that research in these fields has had across areas of national priority, from the economy and health to national security.

Although the President requested flat funding for NSF in his FY 2019 budget proposal, the SBE Directorate as a whole would be cut by 9.1%, and the SBE core programs (which fund core disciplinary research) would be cut by 11.2%. Other Directorates are reduced from 0.5% to 1.3%, while the Geosciences would increase 3.3% in the President’s budget request. Six of NSF’s cross-cutting, Big Ideas would be funded at $30 million each, leaving less available for the core programs.

Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Ranking Member of the Research and Technology Subcommittee, provided written remarks in support of NSF and the SBE Directorate. “I have been an extremely forceful and outspoken advocate for SBE research funding. So it should come as no surprise that I strongly oppose this cut. According to a 2017 National Academies report on the value of SBE to the nation, ‘Nearly every major challenge the United States faces—from alleviating unemployment to protecting itself from terrorism—requires understanding the causes and consequences of people’s behavior.’”

NSF funding ultimately rests with appropriators, so that’s where the debate now moves. Meanwhile, the House SST Committee may take up a reauthorization bill for NSF programs, which could include the Committee’s advice on funding for the agency.