NSF Tops Research Agencies With a $340-Million Boost

Once again, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) reputation as a jack-of-all-research has stood it in good stead with the man in the Oval Office.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama proposed a 4.8% increase in funding for NSF as part of his $3.8-trillion budget request for 2013. The $340-million boost is the largest absolute increase in spending for any federal research agency. NSF's proposed $7.37 billion budget includes $5.98 billion for its six research directorates, up 5.2%, and $876 million for its education directorate, a 5.6% boost.

The 2013 request falls well short of the $7.77 billion that Obama requested last year for NSF. But Congress didn't come close to that figure in its final 2012 appropriation, instead giving NSF a 2.5% increase over its 2011 budget, to $7.03 billion. Still, that largess in a time of severe fiscal constraints bolsters the hopes of NSF Director Subra Suresh that legislators will again be kind to NSF. Suresh argues that a robust NSF is a wise investment. "NSF has fared very well in the president's budget request," Suresh told a press briefing at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. "And good news for NSF is good news for America, and for science everywhere."

NSF funds research in many of the areas that Obama has said are key to the nation's economic recovery. The list includes clean energy and climate science, advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity, as well as improving science and math education. Despite the need for tough choices, Suresh said, NSF's 2013 budget proposes small increases in every core discipline.

Some activities will grow faster than others, however. A signature program begun this year to support risky, multidisciplinary research would jump from $20 million to $63 million in 2013. In addition to supporting 30 to 40 individual investigators, the INSPIRE program plans to hold a competition for multimillion-dollar grants to small research teams willing to tackle grand challenges at the intersections of several disciplines, says Suresh.

The president's budget also proposes that NSF team up with the Department of Education on a joint, $60-million research effort to improve math education from elementary school through college. It's a high-profile program that Obama promoted last week while hosting a science fair to honor student innovation, and one tied to the Administration's promise to train 100,000 more science and math teachers by the end of the decade. NSF and Education officials are meeting weekly to work out the details of the collaboration, Suresh said, including its scope, the eligible audience, and how the two agencies will complement each other's effort.

NSF's major facilities budget would remain flat, reflecting Suresh's preference for completing one project before adding a new one to the queue. That's good news for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a $434-million project more than a decade in the making that this summer will break ground on the first three--in Massachusetts, Florida, and Colorado—of 20 sites across the United States. NEON would receive $91 million this year as it ramps up for 4 more years of construction. A second project also underway, the $386-million Ocean Observatories Initiative, hit its peak spending rate this year, as Suresh shifted $30 million in research funds to continue building its complex network of deep-sea buoys, cabled nodes on the sea floor, and coastal observatories.

Although Suresh and previous NSF directors have long complained that the agency's operating budget is stretched too thin, Suresh said he has deliberately held flat NSF's $300-million budget for administration. That includes support for the vast network of volunteer scientists who participate in its peer-review system. (NSF conducts no in-house research.) Suresh says that an internal panel is looking at ways to streamline the grantsmaking process to free up NSF's 1500 employees for other activities and also reduce the burden on outside scientists who serve as reviewers.