National Science Foundation Update

Howard J. Silver, October 1995

On July 31 the House of Representatives passed the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Independent Agencies Appropriation bill, which includes funding levels for fiscal 1996 for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Unlike the House Science Committee's authorization bill, the appropriations legislation did not call for a reduction in the number of directorates at the NSF, and it did not make any disparaging comments about the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate. In contrast, the appropriations committee praised the NSF for funding a National Consortia on Violence Research, a new SBE initiative. Given tight budget constraints, the NSF research account was appropriated $26 million less than it received in fiscal 1995. The committee allowed the NSF to determine how to make these reductions.

On September 13 the Senate appropriations committee approved its version of the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Independent Agencies Appropriation bill. The Senate committee provided the NSF with an overall budget of $3.2 billion. The research account received $2.294 billion, a $14 billion increase over fiscal 1995, and $40 million more than the House passed bill. The Senate report does not contain any language regarding the SBE Directorate. The full Senate will take up the bill the week of September 18. Any differences must be reconciled in a conference committee. President Clinton, because of the reduced funding for HUD and the EPA, and the elimination of his National Service program, has threatened to veto the bill.

Authorization bills provide the legal standing for agencies to exist. Appropriations bills provide the actual funding levels for an agency in a particular fiscal year. Although technically illegal, in most instances provisions are waived, allowing agencies to receive appropriations without authorizations. Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), chair of the House Science Committee responsible for the NSF authorization bill, held a press conference on August 3. He announced a plan to package all the authorization bills passed by his committee, including the NSF, NASA, Energy Research, and three others, into one omnibus bill, hoping that the House will enact it in September. Even if this does occur, and the House schedule is unclear at this time, the key players on NSF authorization in the Senate continue to evince little interest in taking any action on this bill.

The Science Committee finally released its report on the NSF authorization on August 4. Report language does not carry the same weight as language in a bill. Yet, reports are used to provide clarification and direction to agencies. These directions can be ignored, but sometimes with the risk of later retribution by the committee. As expected, the Science Committee report included language strongly suggesting to the NSF that in examining how to go from seven directorates to six, SBE "is the prime candidate for integration into the other directorates," since it is the smallest and the newest, and one whose research "is of lower scientific priority." It also said that "SBE programs should directly compete for research funds with other disciplinesto assure that scarce research dollars are allocated in the national interest."

The report also included dissenting views, signed by 14 Democratic members of the committee, declaring that the "Committee's evident intent to eliminate NSF's SBE Directorate is a particularly ill advised step ... ." The dissenters noted "the important contributions of research in the social, behavioral and economic sciences" that have been demonstrated by witnesses at hearings held by the committee during the past six years.

Given the possibility that no NSF authorization bill will emerge from the Congress this year, it will now be up to the NSF leadership to determine how to respond to the House Science Committee's call for a report by November 15 indicating how the foundation intends to carry out the recommendation to eliminate one directorate.

—Howard J. Silver is executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Assocations (COSSA).