Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Congress Hears from NSF Director on Its Priorities for FY 2025

On May 16, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, PhD, and former National Science Board (NSB) Chair Dan Reed, PhD, testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology. Chair Mike Collins (R-GA) began the hearing asking where NSF was headed in the future and wanting to ensure the committee fulfilled its responsibility of supporting American innovation. Collins used his trucking business as an example of how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are enhancing this industry. Additionally, he wanted to see federal investments being made not only in large cities but places like Athens, GA, which is his district

Ranking member Haley Stevens (D-MI) said when she was chair of the research and technology committee in 2021, the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIPS) was authorized and there was an authorization for doubling of scientific research. She said the U.S. needs to put its money where its mouth is because China is expected to increase its science and technology funding by 10 percent this year. Investments in scientific research pay dividends to the taxpayers and our economic progress.

Full committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) stated that NSF plays a vital role in advancing basic research and is the gold standard for basic research across the world. NSF’s role has never been more important as the U.S. faces enormous national and societal challenges such as cybersecurity, AI, and need for exceptional computing capacity. The CHIPS and Science Act authorized critical investments and modernization for NSF, and he wanted to know how NSF has progressed in implementing it, especially in improving geographic diversity of the scientific workforce. He also wanted to hear about the new directorate, which is to foster new pathways to partnering with industry, including small businesses and startups. He also brought up research theft and malign foreign influences needing to be stopped by the federal government to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from becoming a global leader in science and innovation.

Ranking member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said that scientific innovation takes time, and that the NSB’s report on the state of science in 2024 is sobering and frank about how the U.S. stands relative to the rest of the world.  She said America’s global lead in research and development (R&D) is rapidly declining and we need to be thoughtful about science funding, citing NSF’s FY 2024 funding as difficult. She also didn’t want to see the TIPS Directorate come at the expense of the rest of NSF, so she wanted to hear how NSF was dealing with the cuts in its final FY 2024 appropriation from Congress. The federal R&D infrastructure picture is grim, and it is the same for our nation's universities. As the scientific research questions get bigger and more complicated, the equipment and facilities need to as well. Budget cuts that can lead to delay or cancellation of large-scale projects can set back an entire generation of scientists within a discipline.

Panchanathan testified that NSF is prioritizing emerging industries for the future such as quantum information sciences. He also told members that the U.S. is handing our competitors our ideas on a silver platter when we cannot fund those ideas due to a lack of resources. NSF receives more than 40,000 proposals but can only fund a quarter of them on average even though at least 35 percent are worthy of funding due to meeting the gold standard merit review process. This worries NSF because writers of high-ranked proposals will be discouraged if NSF is continually unable to fund them. He also said that every program at NSF has been affected by the cut in FY 2024 to $9.06 billion. He said it wasn’t a 5 percent cut as reported because when you take into account the one-time investments that were made in FY 2023 ($9.9 billion enacted), it’s more like an 8.5 percent cut. When factoring in increased costs like aviation fuel for activities like going to the Antarctic, it is more like a 9–10 percent cut so that every program is going to be susceptible to not being able to realize its full potential.