FY 2017 Budget Request: NSF Up 6.7%, Although Increase Reliant on Unlikely Funding Source

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Publication date: 
11 February 2016
Number: 
15

The President requests a 6.7 percent funding increase for the National Science Foundation in fiscal year 2017, raising the agency’s budget to just under $8 billion. However, without a proposed new mandatory funding stream requiring additional legislative approval, the foundation would only see a 1.3 percent increase.

In his final budget submission to Congress, President Obama requests a sizeable 6.7 percent funding increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in fiscal year 2017. However, much of this increase relies on a new, one-time influx of $400 million in mandatory spending. Without this new funding stream, NSF would only receive a 1.3 percent increase.

Historically, most federal research and development (R&D) has been supported through discretionary funding divided up by Congress through the annual appropriations process. Therefore, the President’s mandatory spending proposal represents a new strategy for supporting his administration’s priorities while remaining within statutory caps on discretionary spending. See this FYI for more detail on the overall FY17 budget.

The below two tables show the funding requests for each NSF research directorate and two other major accounts with and without the mandatory spending included.

Table 1: President's FY17 request for NSF excluding mandatory spending

Agency / Account / Directorate FY15
Actual
FY16
Enacted
FY17
Request
Change
FY16-17
NSF 7,398.0 7,463.5 7,564.0 1.3%
Research & Related Activities 6,041.6 6,033.7 6,079.4 0.8%
Biological Sciences 736.2 744.2 745.7 0.2%
Computer & Information Science & Engineering 933.0 935.8 938.4 0.3%
Engineering 923.5 916.2 946.4 3.3%
Geosciences 1,319.0 1,318.5 1,319.6 0.1%
Mathematical & Physical Sciences 1,376.3 1,349.2 1,355.1 0.4%
Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences 276.2 272.2 272.4 0.1%
Education & Human Resources 886.3 880.0 898.9 2.1%
Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction 144.8 200.3 193.1 -3.6%

* all figures are in millions of nominal U.S. dollars

 

Table 2: President's FY17 request for NSF including mandatory spending

Agency / Account / Directorate FY15
Actual
FY16
Enacted
FY17
Request
Change
FY16-17
NSF 7,398.0 7,463.5 7,964.0 6.7%
Research & Related Activities 6,041.6 6,033.7 6,425.4 6.5%
Biological Sciences 736.2 744.2 790.5 6.2%
Computer & Information Science & Engineering 933.0 935.8 994.8 6.3%
Engineering 923.5 916.2 1,002.7 9.4%
Geosciences 1,319.0 1,318.5 1,398.8 6.1%
Mathematical & Physical Sciences 1,376.3 1,349.2 1,436.5 6.5%
Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences 276.2 272.2 288.8 6.1%
Education & Human Resources 886.3 880.0 952.9 8.3%
Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction 144.8 200.3 193.1 -3.6%

* all figures are in millions of nominal U.S. dollars

 

NSF explains in its budget request that since the proposed mandatory spending is expected to be a one-time infusion, it is prioritized toward research grants, especially those supporting early career investigators, with little going to support facilities. With this request:

NSF expects to evaluate over 52,000 proposals through a competitive merit review process and make over 12,000 new awards. This will require over 230,000 proposal reviews, engaging on the order of 35,000 members of the science and engineering community participating as panelists and proposal reviewers. … NSF support is expected to reach approximately 377,000 researchers, postdoctoral fellows, trainees, teachers, and students.

The mandatory spending would give each research directorate an increase of about 6 percent. The Engineering directorate and the Education & Human Resources directorate are slightly favored, with increases of 3.3 and 2.1 percent respectively when mandatory spending is excluded.

Highlights from the NSF budget request

The NSF budget request highlights the agency’s proposed contributions to a number of interagency initiatives. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • $512 million for clean energy R&D, a 38 percent increase over FY16, as part of the Mission Innovation initiative to double clean energy R&D across the government over five years;
  • $142 million for cognitive science and neuroscience research, a 3.6 percent decrease from FY16, to support the BRAIN initiative;
  • $33 million in support of the National Strategic Computing Initiative, established by executive order in July 2015; and
  • $20 million to develop instructional materials in support of the Computer Science for All initiative.

Some highlights for NSF’s proposed programs include:

  • An emphasis on quantum information science, optics, and photonics research by multiple directorates;
  • Continuing construction of two major telescopes: the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, which is nearing completion, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope;
  • The impending “decision point” with respect to potential divestment from certain astronomy facilities (see the Facilities chapter for details);
  • Construction of two new ocean research vessels, starting with $106 million in the  facilities construction account;
  • Ramping-up of the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, & Water Systems program with a 28 percent increase to $62 million;  
  • Winding down of the Science, Engineering, & Education for Sustainability program with a 30 percent decrease to $53 million; and
  • Increased emphasis on broadening participation of under-represented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math education disciplines, with $16 million for the second year of the INCLUDES program.

One item not discussed in the budget request but that has significant implications for the Polar Programs division is that the President requested $150 million for the U.S. Coast Guard to complete design work for the construction of a new heavy icebreaker.

NSF currently relies on the Coast Guard’s sole heavy icebreaker, the 40-year-old Polar Star, to perform the annual resupply of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. NSF expects Polar Star to be able to provide icebreaking services until approximately 2022.