On March 16, the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF), featuring NSF Director France Córdova. Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) opened the hearing by expressing the subcommittee’s longtime support for NSF and basic research, while noting the need to be “exceptionally good stewards” of taxpayer dollars given the tough budgetary environment. As previously reported, the President’s budget request for NSF includes $400 million in one-time mandatory funding, which Chairman Culberson said is “not going to happen.”
Expectedly, a major focus of the hearing was on the recent, ground-breaking detection of gravitational waves by LIGO, an NSF-funded facility. Culberson and Córdova discussed the finding in detail, with Córdova calling the breakthrough a “sterling example of how and why the NSF exists.”
Ranking Member Mike Honda (D-CA), who is a former science teacher and represents Silicon Valley, spoke about the need for NSF to maintain its freedom to invest in all disciplines of science without interference, noting that one cannot predict which basic science research investment will yield the next big innovation or have the greatest impact on society. Honda added that “all science rises and falls together in a connected web,” a nod to efforts last year to single-out NSF’s social science and geoscience directorates for cuts. Honda too expressed disappointment in the President’s request for NSF given that, if you take the mandatory funding off the table, it reflects an increase that is below inflation.
Honda asked directly how appropriating specific funding levels to each of NSF’s six research directorates would impact the agency. Córdova responded that NSF values its ability to allow science to dictate where investment is needed, noting that there is an intricate web of experts who provide bottom-up input into NSF’s decision-making process through workshops, decadal surveys, National Academies’ reports, scientific societies, and advisory committees, among others. Córdova further expressed concern about Congress designating funding amounts by noting that it would “undermine the cooperation across the NSF and jeopardize the agencies’ flexibility to pursue emerging opportunities and minimize the input of the scientific community,” making the process highly politicized.
Social and behavioral science was not subject of direct scrutiny during the hearing, a welcomed departure from previous years’ events. Nonetheless, Honda allowed the Director an opportunity to discuss the importance of this research, and Córdova outlined several examples of NSF-funded social and behavioral science research, such as findings that help us understand how technology is used, how decisions are made regarding personalized medicine, and other impacts in the areas of energy independence and cybersecurity. She added that “almost every area of science is increasingly dependent on social science” in order to make decisions, evaluations and assessments.
An archived webcast of the hearing and Dr. Córdova’s written testimony is available here.