Last week, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee welcomed National Science Foundation Director France Córdova to testify on the fiscal year 2018 budget request. Members showed strong support across-the-board for the foundation while asking tough questions about the budget’s proposed 11 percent cut for the agency. Committee members also asked about specific programs and facilities.
On June 7, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova appeared before the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee to discuss President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the agency. She faced a difficult task as she fielded questions about the proposed 11 percent cut to the agency’s budget while also championing its work.
Appropriators remain supportive of robust NSF funding
In his opening remarks, the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), observed that this is the first time in NSF’s 67-year history that the president has requested less money for the agency than it received the year before. He called the proposed budget “deeply troubling,” and warned that, if enacted, it would endanger NSF’s core missions as well as U.S. global scientific leadership. He remarked, though, that he and Committee Chair John Culberson (R-TX) were united in their support for the agency.
Culberson quickly affirmed that he and Serrano share likeminded views on NSF, saying,
This whole subcommittee is arm-in-arm when it comes to our support for fundamental research, the spectacular work done by the National Science Foundation and NASA. We are, all of us, committed to preserving American leadership in fundamental research and in space exploration.
However, in his own opening statement, Culberson also reported that the subcommittee had not yet been allocated its share of fiscal year 2018 appropriations and acknowledged that keeping taxes in check is a competing priority. Later in the hearing, he linked tightened science funding to expanding nondiscretionary obligations, which include programs such as Social Security and Medicare. And he reiterated his call for scientists to lobby Congress to rein in deficit spending in order to free up additional discretionary funding for science.
Córdova points to the need for ‘difficult choices’
(Image credit – NSF/Stephen Voss)
Throughout the hearing, Córdova spoke eagerly about the benefits of NSF’s programs and more reluctantly about the proposed cut. In her nine-page written statement, she only identified two consequences of a reduced budget: a decrease in new research grants from 8,800 in fiscal year 2016 to 8,000, and a halving in the number of Graduate Research Fellowships offered to 1,000.
Democratic committee members pressed her to expand on the implications of scaled-back NSF activity. In response to a question from Serrano on the subject, she said that NSF is “used to making difficult choices.” She noted that, even at the current funding level, NSF will be unable to fund “up to $4 billion” of research that the agency’s peer review process will rate as “excellent,” and that under the Trump budget that figure would rise to about $5 billion.
Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) asked Córdova who would conduct geosciences research if such programs are cut back at not only NSF but also other agencies. When she suggested it might be a rhetorical question and Kilmer interjected it was not, she replied, “There will be less wherewithal in order to do that important work. We will continue to do the best we can with the budget that we have and subject it to the best merit review processes.”
Later, Kilmer asked Córdova about the role of science and technology in bolstering national economic competitiveness, referencing the 2007 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report and its 2010 follow up. She replied that she agrees the competition from other countries is “incredibly serious,” but said that, “as the head of an Executive Branch agency,” she could not comment on the reports’ calls to double NSF’s budget.
However, one question from Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) did momentarily draw her out of her role as a representative of the administration. Asked how it would be possible under the Trump budget for the U.S. to “retain our best and our brightest,” she admitted, “The budget is not final until Congress weighs in … and I’m sure many prospective scientists and engineers are anxiously waiting for how it all unfolds. Meanwhile … we have a lot of money to do good science.”
Córdova fields questions about policy controversies
In addition to taking questions about the budget, Córdova answered queries about various controversial policies.
Asked by Serrano whether NSF is holding back fiscal year 2017 funds in anticipation of future cuts, she replied unequivocally that it is not. Asked by Cartwright whether NSF had received instructions from the White House to ignore or delay replies to Democratic lawmakers' queries, she replied that it had not. These questions have recently become relevant to science policy as Democrats have sought information from the Department of Energy for allegedly withholding funds for already-awarded R&D grants that the administration is proposing to cut.
Cartwright also asked about the wisdom of Congress setting NSF funding at the directorate level, which is a change that the House Science Committee has sought in past years, but which appropriators rejected in this year’s spending bills. Córdova affirmed her view that “the science community is best equipped to set the priorities for science and engineering,” and described how NSF works with the National Academies and its advisory groups as well as with Congress and the administration to integrate competing priorities.
Astronomy continues to draw appropriators’ attention
Throughout the hearing, committee members from both parties asked a number of questions about NSF activities of special interest, including the geosciences, cybersecurity R&D, risk and resilience research, diversity in STEM, and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). However, it was astronomy that commanded the lion’s share of attention.
Culberson began his questions by spotlighting the success of the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) as an indication of the value of long-term investments in basic research, and even played an audio rendering of a LIGO signal on his mobile phone. Later, he asked about progress with the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, which is scheduled to begin operations in 2020.
Culberson and Serrano also expressed their interest in the future of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, while Culberson and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) both sought assurance about the future of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. NSF has decided to decrease its support for these two facilities. Córdova reported that NSF’s decision process is still ongoing in both cases, though she was able to report that a new potential partnership for Green Bank had recently arisen with the “national security community.”