NSF hopes Congress will dig it out of a $1 billion budget hole

NSF hopes Congress will dig it out of a $1 billion budget hole
The proposed budget for the National Science Foundation would continue funding a $410-million renovation of its McMurdo research station in Antarctica, where construction costs have risen.

Mike Lucibella/NSF

For the second time in 3 years, President Donald Trump has recommended deep cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF). And scientists are hoping that Congress will again come to the agencys rescue.

One month after signing a 2019 spending bill that gave NSF a record $8.1 billion budget, Trump has proposed shrinking it by $1 billion in 2020. The presidents $7.1 billion request was apparently so depressing that NSFs director, France Crdova, did not participate in a media call yesterday to review the request. Instead, she left it to her aides to insist that NSF will continue to push the frontiers of knowledge despite the proposed 12.5% reduction.

The president of the National Science Board, NSFs presidentially appointed oversight body in Alexandria, Virginia, also sees a silver lining in the dark budget clouds. NSF will persevere at $7.1 billion and do wonderful things, says Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. And if it gets additional funds, its impact on research will be even greater.

Theres some reason to think NSF could see an increase once the annual budget battle is over. Last year, Congress turned Trumps proposed $184-million reduction into an increase of the same size, and in 2018 it transformed a proposed $645 million cut into a $330 million boost.

NSFs low-ball 2020 budget is part of the administrations attempt to squeeze domestic discretionary programs while boosting military spending. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress oppose such an approachand in the past 2 years, Congress has reversed most of the administrations proposed research cuts. But without an agreement on top-line numbers, the dispute is expected to extend beyond the 1 October start of the new fiscal year. NSFs budget could be frozen at current levels if no agreement is reached, and an impasse could even trigger another government shutdown.

If adopted, the 2020 budget would be NSFs smallest since 2013. NSF officials estimate that the foundation would make 1000 fewer new awards (the figure was 9000 in 2018) and that the success rate for grant applicants will dip by 1%, to 21%. The proposed cuts stretch across all six research directorates, as well as its education directorate.

Despite having $1 billion less to work with, Crdova found room to push ahead with a major new cross-disciplinary initiative, called NSFs 10 Big Ideas. Shes seeking a total investment of $357 million in the multifaceted effort, up $75 millionsome 26%over projected spending this year.

Each of the six research areas, which span from navigating the Arctic to understanding the underlying rules of life, would receive $30 million in 2020 to go with $30 million apiece in 2019. Two of the sixHarnessing the Data Revolution and the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontierwould also get $30 million each to accelerate private collaborations and build institutional capacity.

With both Congress and the science board backing more spending on new research facilities, NSF hopes to launch two such programs in 2020. The first, for projects costing between $6 million and $20 million, would be funded by adding $30 million to an existing $60 million pot spread across its research directorates. The second, to finance projects of between $20 million and $70 million, would tap into a $45-million allocation in 2020 within NSFs major construction account.

The construction account, for which NSF has proposed $223 million, would also provide $98 million for the second year of a 5-year Antarctic modernization project. Its price tag has grown recently from $355 million to $410 million, fueled by the rising cost of steel, aluminum, and concrete as well as an overheated construction industry that has pushed up labor costs. NSF has also requested $33 million to begin a 5-year, $150-million upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. The account has room for these new starts because NSF has completed the 81-site, continental-wide National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and has received full funding for three midsize research vessels now under construction.

In contrast, a few activities would be sharply curtailed in 2020 under the presidents budget. A politically popular program to help states with little NSF funding become more competitive would be trimmed by $25 million, or 14%. The number of new slots in NSFs flagship graduate research fellowships, begun shortly after NSF was created in 1950, would dip next year to 1600, from 2000 in 2018. Programs across the foundation to support early career scientists would shrink by 13% from 2018 levels, and efforts to foster research at predominantly undergraduate institutions would plunge by 28% from 2018.

The deep overall cuts in the presidents budget would translate into $87 million less for its education directorate, now funded at $910 million. And that has prompted a realignment of several programs.

Funding for a pre-college computer science initiative would shrink by more than half, to $10 million, despite the fact that computer science education is an administration priority. A scholarship program for would-be science and math teachers would shrink by 27%, to $47 million. A $40-million program to support colleges with large Hispanic populations would receive only $15 million.

There would also be a few winners. A long-running program at the nations community colleges to train more technical workersanother Trump administration prioritywould grow by 14%, to $75 million. And the Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science program to foster diversity across all levels of science, a signature effort by the director, would receive an 11% bump, to $20 million.
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