What is Congress up to, vis-à-vis the NSF? Money and Demography


During the week of May 6, I attended two hearings in the House of Representatives, both of which had to do with the NSF. Congressional hearings are (usually) open to the public. Some are easy to get in to, some are very, very popular and hundreds of people wait in line and never get in. The latter did happen, for example, when I went to the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos. At that one, there were two “over-flow rooms” which were also packed and in which one watched the proceedings on a tv. People had flown in from all over the country for her hearing, and some were protesting and getting dragged out of the building by Capitol police. This is typical for controversial confirmation hearings in the Senate.

That said, most are not that exciting or crowded. Usually the ones I attend are well-attended but not hard to get in to. Who the heck goes to these? My counterparts at other disciplinary science societies, staff from Congressional offices of members who are not on the committee, and media writers from journals like Science.

Roughly what it looks like from where I sit, in the committee’s hearing room. The people facing us are the members of Congress, witnesses who are testifying are at the table facing them. Incidentally, the paintings on the wall are of past committee chairs; all are white men, soon Eddie Bernice Johnson’s image will join. She is a black woman. Source: https://ciresblogs.colorado.edu/prometheus/2013/12/06/roger-pielke-jr-to-testify-at-us-house-science-committee-on-environment-hearing/

On May 8 I attended A Review of the National Science Foundation FY 2020 Budget Request, and on May 9 it was Achieving the Promise of a Diverse Workforce. At those links you can listen to the entirety of the hearings (if that’s your thing), or just choose to read statements made by the congressional members and the witnesses. For less effort, just keep reading. There are articles covering these online already and I will try to add to these in this blog, and not give a blow-by-blow of each hearing. Here is just one good account of the second hearing.

May 8 hearing: How much money should the NSF have to invest in research in FY2020?

How these hearings (generally) go is that the committee chair and the ranking member give opening statements, and these are followed by opening statements from each witness. After that, the congressional members in the room ask questions, in 5 minute installments, to the witnesses. The May 8 hearing came after President Trump released his own idea about how much money the NSF should get for FY2020, and before the House appropriators give their recommendation. Freshman Haley Stevens (representing Michigan’s 3rd district, and Chair of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology) opened with:

It worries me that this Administration does not truly understand the importance of scientific funding to our nation’s innovation goals. This proposal represents a vision for science that, if realized, would be disastrous for our nation’s long-term welfare, security, and competitiveness.

It is not a surprise to you, I bet, that President Trump proposes a massive cut to the NSF. The good news is that Congressional support for the NSF is, truly, bipartisan. In mathematics, about 64% of all research done at colleges and universities that is federally-funded, is in fact funded by the NSF. This system for supporting our work is relatively recent, as witness National Science Board Chair Diane Souvaine explained in her opening statement:

Before NSF was founded, S&E research was focused on using new discoveries to develop technologies used toward victory in World War II. In Science – the Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush presented a vision for a new model, in which individuals with advanced degrees working at elite universities performed government-supported research. Since then, our national S&E ecosystem has changed and grown.

 While the President’s budget “is only a proposal” and Congress is prone to ignore it in their final appropriations, it can still hurt scientific progress. As House Science Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX, district 30) said about his proposed cut to the NSF:

A cut like that would keep us from funding excellent research and slow progress in critical areas of technology development. Unfortunately, this is a pattern we’ve seen from this White House over the past three budget cycles. To make matters worse, the recent shut down of much of our government for 35 days, including the National Science Foundation, resulted in delays for 2,000 grant applications. While that may seem minor to some, delays in grant funding derail academic careers, sometimes permanently. Increasingly, U.S. students and early career researchers are packing up for better opportunities abroad or leaving STEM altogether.

This hearing on the NSF budget for FY2020 was in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. They oversee NSF policy, but do not get to decide how much money the NSF gets each year. That responsibility lies with the House Appropriations Committee and, in particular, with the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. On May 16, the appropriators put out their proposal for NSF funding in FY2020. They propose \$8.64 billion.[1] Their summary of the bill says that “These funds will foster innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness, including funding for research on advanced manufacturing, physics, mathematics, cybersecurity, neuroscience, and STEM education.” So, we observe that they highlight mathematics (and a few other areas) out of all the many science fields supported by the NSF. Now we wait for the House to finalize this, for the Senate to come out and then finalize their number, for the two chambers to agree, and finally for President Trump to sign on.

Perhaps because the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has oversight of NSF (but not budgetary power), attention during the hearing often turned to non-budgetary issues. One of the most interesting lines of questioning had to do with current concerns that NSF-funded research is used unfairly by foreign governments. The two witnesses explained the steps that the NSF has recently taken to address these concerns and protect research and researchers. For example,

  • individuals who rotate through the NSF each year, serving as program officers, must now be US citizens or have applied to become a US citizen;
  • the NSF is improving the quality of its monitoring, assessment, and auditing of research grant applicants’ disclosure forms; and
  • grant proposals must justify why an international branch of a US institution of higher education is the necessary site for a proposed research project (why not simply visit the domestic campus?).

The witnesses were quick to point out that it is their focus to keep the global science community open and cooperative, while balancing the (real or perceived) need for closer scrutiny of foreign influence.

May 9 hearing: Broadening participation in science: the STEM Opportunities Act

The second hearing provided the backdrop for Rep Johnson to reintroduce her STEM Opportunities Act. She has introduced this in the past, but this is the first time she has had a Republican co-sponsor (Rep Frank Lucas, Oklahoma district 3, who is the committee’s ranking member) and also the first time it has been introduced in a Democratically-controlled House.

The hearing focused on how to increase the number of women and minorities in STEM fields. Rep Johnson began by noting that there has not been a hearing of this committee focused on STEM participation since 2010, and by listing some of the well-known and troubling statistics about minority PhD attainment. The arguments for making STEM fields more inclusive include the argument that to stay globally competitive we need all minds, and that we are not using the minds of 50% of our population (an argument for getting more women into these fields).

NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel to space. (Source: NASA)

Witness Dr. Mae Jemison added with the observation that “The relative homogeneity of the leadership of the STEMM (the second “M” is for medicine) workforce and industries has far-reaching implications for the nation’s broader research and innovation agenda.” For example, how does the demographic make-up of the family of scientists skew the actual science that gets done? She continued, “For instance, issues related to car crash-test dummies are designed based on the “average” male, such that when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die, even when controlling for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity.” Dr. Jemison was very impressive as a witness and is very impressive for her individual accomplishments: she is a doctor, she served in the Peace Corps, she speaks Russian, Japanese and Swahili. Oh, and did I mention that she is the first black woman to travel in space? In the early 1990s, she travelled on the space shuttle Endeavour on 126 orbits around the Earth. All five of the witnesses are impressive individuals.

There are many bills introduced that are aimed to broaden participation in STEM fields; the STEM Opportunities Act is the only one I know of that specifically addresses barriers for faculty at colleges and universities. There are many bits to this bill. If it were to become law, here are examples of what would happen:

  • The NSF would have to collect data from universities on the number of faculty members at different ranks by gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, age, and years since completion of doctoral degree.
  • The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would have to develop written guidance for institutions of higher education for conducting periodic climate surveys of STEM departments, with a particular focus on identifying cultural or institutional barriers to the recruitment, retention, or advancement of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other groups historically underrepresented in STEM studies and careers.
  • The OSTP Director would also have to work with agencies (including the NSF) to get provisions in place for grantees who are caregivers (those who have caregiving responsibilities, including care for a newborn or newly adopted child and care for an immediate family member who is sick or disabled). This would include, for example, flexibility in timing for the initiation of approved research awards.

We have made progress with our efforts to achieve STEM faculties at colleges and universities that mirror the general public’s demography, but there is still so much to be done. I admire and thank the five witnesses for their hard and determined work over so many years. I truly appreciate Representatives Johnson and Lucas combined efforts on this front and for raising this issue to their colleagues.


[1] In FY2018, the NSF had \$8.1 billion; Trump proposes \$7.1, and the AMS supports \$9 billion for FY2020. https://www.ams.org/government/dc-testimony-2019

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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