A Senate proposal that would reduce next year's budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) by $162 million includes unprecedented flexibility for the agency to decide how best to spend a portion of that shrinking pot of money. It's a small but important silver lining in a year when even NSF's best friends in Congress have turned their backs on the Obama Administration's request for a 13% increase for the basic research agency as part of the political consensus on reducing the federal deficit.
Yesterday the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to give NSF $6.7 billion in the 2012 fiscal year that begins next month. The money is contained in a $52.7 billion spending bill (S.1572) to fund dozens of federal agencies, most of which would also see their budgets shrink. The NSF figure, 2.4% below its current level, would reduce funding for NSF's six research directorates by $120 million, to $5.44 billion. It would lower spending on education by $32 million, to $829 million. And while the committee would hold steady the $117 million now available for large new facilities, flat funding would actually mean a significant reduction in plans to scale up work on half a dozen projects in that account, for which NSF had requested $224 million.
That squeeze prompted legislators to take the unusual step of giving NSF the option of moving $100 million from its research account to erase most of the shortfall in the facilities account. The shift, if adopted, would allow NSF to stay on schedule in building out the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) and begin major construction on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The committee had clearly done its arithmetic: It specified that the $117 million should be used to fully fund the relatively small amounts requested for three projects close to completion, plus $83 million of the $103 million requested for OOI. But that left no money for NEON, for which NSF had requested $88 million.
"That's a lot of flexibility, and that's good," says Robert Gagosian, president of the nonprofit Consortium on Ocean Leadership, which is managing the $386-million OOI project. "What it means is that [NSF Director Subra] Suresh and his people have the ability to decide what activities are critical to move forward and what can be delayed."
David Schimel, chief scientist for NEON, says that the possible reallocation of funds "does not materially change the present scenario" for building the $434-million network. "It's still a wait-and-see situation."
Schimel's words reflect the reality that the plan must first be approved by the entire Senate and then reconciled with pending legislation in the House of Representatives to fund NSF in 2012. The House bill, which was approved in July and is still awaiting a floor vote, would actually maintain NSF's overall budget at 2011 levels but shrink the facilities account to $100 million.