On March 22, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology held an oversight hearing to discuss the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF Director France Córdova and Chair of the National Science Board, Dan Arvizu, testified before the Subcommittee. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) chaired the hearing.
In his opening statement, Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), a PhD political scientist, expressed the importance getting more people to understand the critical role NSF plays, especially across all disciplines of science. In addition, and noting that the discussion could turn to the issue of priority setting among NSF’s research directorates, Lipinski quoted House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) who stated during his Subcommittee’s hearing last week that he does not wish to appropriate specific funding levels for each of NSF’s individual directorates, instead leaving the decision to the agency. That statement was directed at full Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has been a vocal critic of federal support for social and behavioral science research and has called for major cuts to social and behavioral science research through his America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806).
In contrast, Chairman Smith remained quiet during the hearing, noting that he had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Córdova privately earlier in the day, in which they “exchanged views” on a variety of topics. His only question during the hearing centered on the extent to which NSF prioritizes computer science, which is a pet interest for him. However, Smith’s written statement, which he submitted for the hearing record, continues his assault on social and behavioral science research projects funded by NSF, stating:
“Tight federal budget constraints require all taxpayer dollars to be spent on high value science in the national interest. Unfortunately, NSF has funded a number of projects that do not meet the highest standards of scientific merit – from a $500,000 grant to help amateurs create a video game called “Relive Prom Night” to $1.5 million for studying pasture management in Mongolia.”
Similar to her testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on March 16, Dr. Córdova started her prepared statement by discussing the recent ground-breaking detection of gravitational waves at LIGO, an NSF-supported facility, noting that the discovery is a product of decades of investment by NSF, a nod to the long-term nature of basic science investment and discovery.
On a less positive note, she discussed the ongoing decline of NSF’s funding rate, which now hovers just over 20 percent. Under NSF’s current budget, about $4 billion worth of grants that have been reviewed as “very good” to “excellent” go unfunded each year, which, as Dr. Córdova stated, is an invitation for researchers to leave the field. She testified that the President’s request for NSF would begin to address these challenges.
Dr. Arvizu discussed the National Science Board’s role in setting future science priorities, stressing the need for NSF to continue to push the frontiers of science if the U.S. is to remain a global innovation leader. Arvizu also expressed the Board’s support for social, behavioral, and economic sciences, noting that questions in the social and behavioral sciences are often “among the hardest to crack.”
Most of the questions from the committee centered on programs and research areas of personal interest, including STEM education, broadening participation in science, computer science, cybersecurity, among others. However, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-WA), in noting a visit she had with a private sector constituent as part of COSSA’s Social and Behavioral Science Advocacy Day last week, expressed her support for social and behavioral science research, including as it relates to private industry interests, and asked Dr. Córdova for examples of NSF-supported research in these fields that have made a difference. Córdova listed several examples, including measurement, data linkage, and integration of diverse sources of information (e.g. survey, mass media, and social media data), which is of importance to the Department of Defense in the area of situational awareness; understanding the social and behavioral responses to cybersecurity; and helping us respond better to natural and human-made disasters. She added that social and behavioral science is part of every cross-disciplinary initiative at NSF, which further shows the importance of these sciences to everything NSF does.
An archived webcast of the hearing and the witness’s written testimony can be found on the Subcommittee’s website.
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