Upbeat House Appropriations Hearing on National Science Foundation

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Publication date: 
19 March 2015

“The reputation of the NSF is the greatest in the world,” House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) said Tuesday during a hearing on the foundation’s FY 2016 budget request.  Culberson’s passion for science was clearly evident at this and other hearings, and as the point person for the writing of the funding bill for NSF, his statements during this hearing were very encouraging.

For FY 2016 NSF has requested $7,723.6 million, an increase of $379.3 million or 5.2 percent over the FY 2015 appropriation of $7,344.2 million.  As have other appropriation subcommittee chairs, Culberson said at the beginning of this two hour hearing that “it is really going to be a difficult budget year.”

NSF’s grant-making process has been the subject of much discussion in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee with particular criticism of some grants made by its Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Directorate.  A recent hearing by the Science Committee indicates that criticism may be lessening following new transparency and accounting procedures the foundation has instituted. 

Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) raised this matter at Tuesday’s hearing when he asked NSF Director France Cordova to comment on the value of SBE grants.  Honda said it was “very troubling” to see the “unprecedented expansion” of congressional interaction in the award process for some of these grants.   

Cordova explained that SBE “is a vital part of the whole portfolio,” and is the smallest of the foundation’s directorates, accounting for less than 5 percent of the budget of the Research and Related Activities account.  She said the impact of this work has been enormous, citing SBE research that was instrumental in improving kidney transplant allocation, the auctioning of electromagnetic spectrum by the Federal Communication Commission resulting in $60 billion in federal revenues, nonverbal communication training for Army personnel, and geographic analysis.

Of particular note were Culberson’s comments immediately following Cordova’s response.  Said Culberson: “I completely agree that the work that you do and the grants that you award for scientific research that is conducted by universities and researchers across the country should be driven by the facts and the sciences.  And all of us should do everything we can to eliminate political considerations from those decisions.” 

Culberson went on to say that the foundation should be careful to protect its “sterling reputation” with prudent grant making and by providing clear explanations to taxpayers about the research it supports.  He continued, “The reputation of the NSF is the greatest in the world.    We’ll do everything in this committee to help protect you from political interference, whether it be from the right or the left. But do be keenly aware that you’ve got a marvelous reputation to protect and be conscious that the dollars we [the appropriators] spend are hard earned, and very precious, and very scarce.”   Culberson stressed the need to follow the facts in allowing science to direct the foundation’s activities, and the importance of keeping the faith and trust of taxpayers.

Cordova replied that recent changes to the foundation’s policies and procedures should enhance accountability and transparency by requiring a portion of an abstract to describe in non-technical language how the research serves the national interest.

At this point Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) joined the conversation, commenting that policymakers play an important role in setting national policy, as did President John Kennedy  when he called for a manned landing on the moon.  Fattah is a strong and enthusiastic supporter of science and federal science funding agencies.  He added that policymakers should not get involved in the decision making process in the support of research.  “We have to find a happy marriage,” he said, adding “And I trust my chairman as we go forward.”

Culberson responded, “And we will do it, arm-in-arm.”  Culberson said he was “a big believer” in the value of apolitical, peer-reviewed decadal studies in areas such as earth sciences, heliophysics, astrophysics, and planetary sciences.  He called these studies the “gold standard” and a “North Star,” telling Honda he was correct in not wanting to inject politics into the workings of the National Science Foundation.  “We are delighted you are leading the agency” he told Cordova. 

This very important ten minute exchange, beginning with the statement by Honda (off-camera) starts after 01:17 on this archived webcast.

Other topics of considerable interest were discussed at this hearing.  Culberson’s first questions involved a report by the Inspector General for the foundation regarding the management and auditing of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Construction Project.   Culberson seemed satisfied with Cordova’s assurances that NSF has tightened its procedures and policies, and that it will work with the Inspector General.

Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) asked about the status of a recommendation for NSF’s disinvestment of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.  Cordova replied that the foundation was paying close attention to a decadal study making this recommendation, and will be issuing a report about its future action in the middle of this year.  “We’re committed to doing the right thing” she told Jenkins, adding that the telescope could be supported in the future with new funding sources that could involve outreach and training opportunities.  Cordova noted that the Green Bank telescope is “a vitally important facility,” as is Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory that is also under a separate review.

As the hearing moved toward its conclusion, Culberson said he had a few more questions to ask Cordova.  He first asked for an update on the relocation of NSF’s headquarters to a new location in Northern Virginia.  After Cordova updated him, Culberson then asked “There's been some discussion, some other Members of Congress have suggested that we recommend specific research directorate funding levels in your appropriations.  Typically we have not done so in the past. I would like, if you could, to address that. Should Congress designate funds by directorate, and how would, if that was done, impact the peer review process?"

Cordova replied that “this is really a big deal,” explaining that such directorate-level funding was appropriated in FY 1999.  The NSF budget was about half of what it is now; then the level of proposals numbered about 30,000 as compared to today’s 50,000.  Cordova stressed the exhaustive and “very time consuming” process the foundation follows in determining funding levels involving decadal studies, workshops, other forms of community input, program officer and staff decisions, and other planning exercises such as staff retreats.  Work on the FY 2017 budget request that will go to Congress next February is already underway she said.  Cordova wondered if Congress really wanted to be involved in such a laborious process that would create an opportunity for scientists to lobby on behalf of a specific research area or facility.

Culberson appeared satisfied with Cordova’s answer, characterizing her remarks as “very valid concerns.”  He spoke of investing wisely in NSF and NASA, and said that funding decisions should not be influenced by the promise of new jobs or parochial interests.  Culberson then turned to his third question about the control that the Office of Management and Budget has over the foundation’s annual request, expressing his desire that it, and that of NASA, by-pass OMB and be submitted directly to Congress.

In the course of his concluding remarks, Culberson referenced the OMB, as he told Cordova “The National Science Foundation is a national treasure.  And we will do everything we can to help protect you, to fund you at a level you need to continue to do the great work that you’ve been doing . . .  with as little political interference as is humanly possible.”