This Week in Science Policy: March 2018 3.1 Edition

What a week it has been in federal hearings for the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. With the President having released the 2018-2019 Presidential Budget Request, Congress must now assess the changes made, by the White House, to the federal science system. Two hearings were conducted this week, National Laboratories: World Leading Innovation in Science and An Overview of the National Science Foundation Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2019. While each hearing lasting about two hours long, I have tried to make it easier for you to understand what was discussed in these hearings. While not all the information discussed can be included in the summary, I will try to highlight major talking points that I believe will be insightful as you learn about federal science funding in the federal budget process. I hope you learn something valuable!

National Laboratories: World Leading Innovation in Science

For this committee hearing, legislators met with Directors from the following national labs:

In this budget hearing, the committee sought to gain insight of Directors from several Department of Energy laboratories. The committee sought to understand how the upcoming budget cuts to the Department would impact operations at the laboratories. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D-TX 30) was especially concerned about the upcoming cuts, including:

  • 60% to DOE Renewable Energy & Efficiency
  • 70% to Sustainable Transportation
  • 80% to Energy Efficient Activities
  • 50% to Critical Research in the Electric Grid
  • 25% to Nuclear & Fossil Fuel Research and Development

According to several witnesses, the upcoming budget cuts would result in a 10% reduction at the Idaho National Labs (Dr. Peters), 100 Full-Time Employees at Lawrence Berkley Lab, and a shift of staff at Sandia Labs for national security personnel. Other committee members, like Congresswoman Suzanne Bonomici (D-OR 1), were concerned with fiscal instability affecting the efficiency of the national labs at the Department of Energy. As noted by Director Seestrom, it is hard to implement new projects when Congress operates off of Continual Resolutions, or short-term spending bills designed to address fiscal needs without passing a complete budget. Thankfully, there were several Representatives who understood the value that the federal laboratories provided to the country.

As noted by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY 20), “National labs are our best kept secret at times and a tremendous, and empowering resource, for this nation.”

Another representative, Congressman Clay Higgins (R-LA 3) has put forth legislation seeking to utilize the vast resources at the Department of Energy with HR 5260. This legislation designates the Department of Energy to build four new commercially advanced nuclear reactor designs over the next 10 years.

Overall, most of the committee members, present at this hearing, see the value of continued investment in federal energy research at the national laboratories. As the federal budget process continues, it will be important to see how funding levels for the Department of Energy fluctuate between last year’s budget and this years upcoming budget.

To view the complete hearing for this report, please follow the link listed below:

Source: Science, Space, and Technology

An Overview of the National Science Foundation Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2019

In this hearing, committee members assess the current budget proposal of the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2019. The hearing had three witnesses, all representing the National Science Foundation (NSF):

The main theme for this hearing was to address the changes that were happening to the upcoming fiscal year and how the NSF is adapting to fulfill its requirement to be a provider of research funding for conducting science.  Naturally, the upcoming budget cuts were concerning for some members while others representatives were concerned about how NSF was utilizing their funds for research. For example, Chairman Lamar Smith highlighted several proposals supported by the NSF that included things such as:

Several matters, like the projects above, were discussed in great detail by Dr. Cordova and she highlights that the justification of these projects can be found on the NSF Website. Dr. Cordova also discussed how the NSF will be shifting priorities to focus on “Convergence Accelerators, or the ability to tie multiple disciplines together, to find meaningful solutions to the problems affecting society. Dr. Cordova highlighted that $60 million would go into these new divisions to strengthen the potential of the NSF to solve these challenges.

However, the members of the committee were alarmed by the United States ability to remain a leader in scientific research. Since 2000, China’s R+D spending has grown by 18%, while the United States R+D spending has grown about 4% (Dr. Zuber). In addition, China has committed 15% of their GDP to talent development, including investment to bring back Chinese scientists to open their own labs at Chinese universities. Dr. Zuber highlighted an example where a post doc she knew was offered an Assistant Professor position at a Chinese University with funding equivalent to that of a Full Professor. Not only is China serious about investing in R&D, they could soon challenge us to be the largest provider of scientific research.

In comparison, total federal R&D has dropped to 2017 levels, or ~$7 billion, which impacts future research projects. Congresswoman Esty, expressed concern that the NSF was not providing the funds needed to support projects that were considered excellent, but did not have the resources to proceed forward. According to Dr. Zuber, the current NSF budget is set at $7.4 billion; to fund projects that were considered very good, or excellent, the NSF would need an additional $3.92 billion dollars. That’s roughly 1.5x larger than what the current budget is currently at now!

What’s also concerning is the drop in federal funding for graduate students to complete their degrees. According to Congressman McNerney, there is a 15% reduction in graduate fellowships, as well as Research Undergraduate Experiences, which impacts future researchers from pursuing STEM careers. Coupled with the fact scientific researchers get paid very little during their graduate, and post-doctorate career, the STEM field is losing potential talent due to economic restraints. Overall, the hearing highlighted numerous challenges that NSF faces and that bold ideas are needed to address the United States capacity to remain a world leader in scientific research.

To view the whole hearing, please be sure to check out the video below:

Source: Science, Space, Technology Committee

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