Skinny Science Budget: Not a Good Model

2017-06-12T15:10:58+00:00 June 12, 2017|
Dr. William Easterling will lead the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation starting in June 2017. (Credit: NSF)

(Click to enlarge) Dr. William Easterling will lead the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation starting in June 2017. (Credit: NSF)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports critical and potentially life-saving research across the United States, such as studies to predict risks associated with earthquakes and tsunamis along the Cascadia subduction zone. The president’s budget recommendation for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 for NSF is $6.65 billion, an 11 percent decrease from the enacted budget for FY 2017. This is the only time a president has ever proposed a cut to the agency’s top line in its 67-year history.

Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies held a hearing on Wednesday morning to discuss the president’s budget proposal for NSF with Dr. France Córdova (Director, NSF) as the sole witness. Across the board, members expressed their concern for these dramatic and unprecedented cuts. Ranking Member José Serrano (NY-15) shared his fear that “this level of funding endangers the core missions of NSF.”

Members questioned Dr. Córdova about NSF’s plans from cybersecurity to dark matter, but it was the cuts to education programs, earth sciences, and ocean research that were particularly concerning to the ocean science community. Dr. Córdova shared the budget recommendations to decrease graduate student grants by 11-12 percent (from the enacted FY 2017 level) and cuts of 7.4 percent and 10.2 percent to NSF’s Polar Programs and Ocean Sciences, respectively. Some have argued that funding reductions to geoscience programs are acceptable as the Earth science topics could be and are sometimes already addressed through similar programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but Representative Derek Kilmer (WA-6), referencing reductions to those agencies of 30 percent or more in those areas, asked “who is going to do this?” The proposed 40 percent cut to geosciences and 24 percent reduction to the groundbreaking Ocean Observatories Initiative, which collects oceanic and atmospheric data, make it difficult to understand the natural processes of our world, alter the ability for critical baseline geoscience data and information critical to industry, and hinder the ability to predict the planet’s weather and changing climate. Additionally, Representative Matt Cartwright (PA-17) brought up a movement by some in Congress to “selectively fund programs at NSF,” which he believes would “detrimentally inject politics” into funding decisions.  Dr. Córdova responded that those best equipped to set science and engineering priorities are people within the scientific community.

Every member at the hearing expressed immense appreciation for the foundation’s commitment to research, education, and innovation, but Chairman John Culberson (TX-17) asked scientists to turn their attention towards the mounting national debt, which he called the “fundamental problem that is devouring these precious resources.” Ranking Member Serrano had a slightly different outlook concerning the need for these suggested cuts, reminding the room, “After all, it’s the Congress who has the final say in funding matters.”