House Action Further Threatens NSF Autonomy, Funding
May 2015

Before leaving for Memorial Day recess, the House of Representatives took action on two important pieces of legislation affecting the National Science Foundation (NSF). On May 20, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the America COMPETES bill (H.R. 1806) to reauthorize NSF.

On that same day, the House Appropriations Committee voted on the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriation bill containing the NSF budget for fiscal year 2016. Unfortunately, despite strong opposition from the broad scientific and higher education communities, including AERA, both bills advanced. If passed into law, these bills would diminish investments in the Education and Human Resources (EHR) and the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorates at NSF.

As covered in the April Highlights, the scientific and higher education communities vigorously opposed H.R. 1806 when it was considered by the House Science Committee. A major objection was a provision that would authorize funding at the directorate level, undercutting the merit review process and NSF’s priority setting procedures.

The bill authorizes the NSF for two years at $7,597 million in fiscal year 2016. Authorizing bills are typically higher than appropriating bills as they set aspirational goals for agencies whereas authorizers are bound by budget caps. HR 1806 reduces NSF's SBE directorate by 58 percent and EHR by 10 percent of the Obama administration’s proposed budget.

The National Science Foundation released an impact statement, outlining the specific ways that HR 1806 would work against the mission of the NSF.

An AERA action alert yielded 740 letters from AERA members to their congressional representatives in opposition to HR 1806. These letters make a difference and are particularly persuasive when coming from constituents at local universities. Despite a hard press from Republican leadership to support the bill, 23 Republicans voted against the bill with a narrow margin of 217–205.

The House Appropriation Committee approved the CJS appropriations bill, which increases funding for NSF by a mere 0.7 percent for fiscal year 2016. The bill appropriates $5.983 million for the Research and Related Activities (RRA) Account. However, accompanying report language provided specific instructions that “no less than 70 percent” of these funds were to be spent on the particular directorates and offices within RRA. The remaining funds in the research account for the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (currently funded at $272 million dollars) and Geosciences Directorate ($1.3 billion) would require a $250 million cut. The FY 2016 CJS bill now heads to the House floor.

Looking ahead, AERA anticipates that the Senate will move an NSF reauthorization bill that is more supportive of science and less partisan. However, due to budget caps, low funding levels remain a concern. President Obama has threatened to veto any appropriations bill that keeps within the stringent spending caps set by the Budget Control Act. 

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