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House’s FIRST Act a step backward for geoscience funding

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R.4186), which would reauthorize funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for fiscal years (FY) 2014 and 2015, went through a markup and passed by a voice vote in the research panel of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on March 13. The FIRST Act authorizes $7.279 billion in funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for FY 2015, a 1.5% increase from 2014. $1.266 billion would be authorized to the Geosciences Directorate, an almost 3 percent decrease from FY 2014. In addition authorization bills do not guarantee that appropriators will approve funding at those levels, so those numbers could drop even lower.

The 2007 and 2010 COMPETES reauthorization bills had a basic goal of doubling the 2006 levels of funding provided to agencies conducting basic scientific research (NSF, NIST and DOE) by 2017. However, the current FIRST bill falls far short of reaching that goal. Instead, it restricts NSF and NIST funding to nearly flat levels, and in the case of some NSF directorates (particularly the geosciences and social sciences) even cuts funding to below 2014 levels. In defending the specific numbers, the chair of the research panel, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), claimed that the low amounts were appropriate because geosciences and social/behavioral sciences are “areas for which the United States already has a wide lead among nations.”

While the bill language initially emphasizes a desire to keep America competitive in the global research community, the bill’s provisions do not even reauthorize funding above the level of inflation. In addition, additional hurdles would be added to the NSF’s grant review process by language that requires grants to be worthy of federal funding by demonstrating their contribution to economic growth or national defense. Another section directs the National Science and Technology Council to submit a plan for ensuring perpetual public access to federally funded data and publications, an initiative already underway at the NSF and in other agencies, including the OSTP’s open access data policy. (An amendment to remove this section was defeated in markup.)

Instead of reauthorizing all of the agencies covered by the original America COMPETES bills of 2007 and 2010, FIRST only pertains to the NSF and NIST, and an accompanying bill (the EINSTEIN America Act) covers funding for the Department of Energy (DOE). House Democrats have introduced their own version of the COMPETES reauthorization, which was assigned to committee on March 6th; the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H.R.4159) would implement 5% year-over-year increases in the budgets of all three agencies, and cover funding authorizations through 2019 (FIRST only covers two years including 2014, for which appropriations have already been completed).

The FIRST Act does contain some useful provisions having to do with STEM education programs, including supporting informal education grants administered by the NSF, “alternative research funding models” like science prize programs, and proposing a postdoctoral program at NIST. However, multiple scientific societies have submitted strongly-worded letters opposing the bill overall (see the GSA co-signed letter from the Coalition for National Science Funding). The fact that the FIRST Act passed a subcommittee markup and vote without the changes requested in those letters, and failing to incorporate amendments proposed to temper the restrictive provisions on the grant review process, does not bode well for basic research.

GSA and the scientific community are continuing to work to improve the bill, and GSA’s position statement on Public Investment in Earth Science Research, reiterates the Society’s stance on the importance of adequate and steady federal investment in scientific research and development.

— Jessica Ball
GSA Science Policy Fellow