The National Science Foundation (NSF) works with some impressive numbers. They receive over 50,000 research proposals each year, support 392,000 people, and have funded 223 Nobel Prize winners. Here’s a less impressive number – a proposed 11 percent decrease (totaling $776 million) in their budget for the coming fiscal year.
Last Tuesday, President Trump rolled out his proposed budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 featuring large cuts for NSF and other federal science agencies. NSF is the nation’s major funder for basic research covering the full spectrum of science disciplines and engineering, and its peer review process is considered the gold standard of merit evaluation. In a Tuesday briefing at NSF headquarters, Dr. France A. Córdova (Director, NSF) spoke to the administration’s priorities for the foundation, addressing concerns about decreased funding (and specifically cuts to earth science programs) and continued focus on STEM education.
The budget proposal (which is just that, a proposal), reflects the White House’s priorities. Even though funding for basic science research under the president’s budget request would fall by $620 million – or 13 percent – Dr. Córdova said the total $6.6 billion for NSF (a cut of about $772 million from FY 2017 levels) “represents a belief” of the administration that basic research is indeed important. When questioned how NSF determined which areas to downsize to meet the new numbers they were given, she replied, “Tough choices had to be made,” but they will continue to invest in talented researchers and fund all scientific disciplines “because you never know where the next discovery is going to come from.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Córdova asserted the critical importance of partnerships, especially within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Strong community partnerships will enable students to gain real-world experience with local education leaders and employers. NSF and the National Science Board (NSB), which establishes overall priorities for the agency, have recognized shifting demographics and career paths of many STEM workers, which play heavily into their research to design effective school curricula and grant programs. Dr. Córdova declared NSF must remain focused on the next generation of scientists and engineers and will continue to target women and minorities to bring into STEM fields. When a media correspondent shared proposed cuts by the administration to NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources – reducing the number of Graduate Research Fellows by half, cutting funding for Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) by 60 percent, and decreasing funds to their low income program by 40 percent – Dr. Córdova replied with a positive spin, asking the audience to look at the aggregate of programs NSF funds and to “look at the totality” of good they can do.
Dr. Córdova assured listeners the NSF will continue to have an “emphasis on safety and security of the American people” and will pursue research pertinent to national defense and cyber security. She pointed to their pursuit of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, which includes robust investment in research infrastructure, such as sensor networks and telescopes for investigating space weather, and Navigating the New Arctic with an observing network for studying environmental and economic impacts on the region and the globe. However, the Directorate for Geosciences would receive cuts in the proposed budget (though not as drastic as they initially appear, since the Office of Polar Programs was moved out of the Geosciences Directorate). The $783 million in the president’s request is down from the comparable $876 million that was enacted in FY 2016. Dr. Scott G. Borg (Acting Director, NSF Directorate for Geosciences) maintained that NSF wants to protect their core programs and voiced the need to understand the ocean’s role in the Earth system. However, the budget proposed slashing Ocean Sciences by 10 percent from FY 2016; in particular, the Ocean Observatories Initiative would be cut a substantial 24 percent.
From the outset of the briefing, Dr. Córdova reassured listeners that “We understand and appreciate the apprehension” surrounding the administration’s proposed numbers but that “This budget is not about what we can’t do, it’s about what we can do.” She implored the audience to come together as a research and science policy community to achieve the NSF mission. Dr. Borg agreed and added, “We’re not here to set policy, we’re here to advance understanding.”