The massive omnibus funding bill and what it means for the math community


As always, this post reflects only my own views.

This post is a bit late. In the days before Christmas, President Trump signed into law final appropriations of \$1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2021 (FY21). This includes roughly \$900 billion in pandemic-response funding. The House passed the bill with a vote of 359 to 53 and the Senate with a vote of 92 to 6. The 19 non-voting members were all Republican.

A very short overview of the annual appropriations process is found at the Office of Government Relations website (which now needs updating—the basic process and timeline are the same every year, but the numbers need updating).

In the pandemic relief, we were very much hoping to see provisions to address disruptions to research projects, which the Research Investment to Secure the Economy (RISE) Act had called for. Such provisions were not included. I understand that the RISE Act will likely be re-introduced soon.

Because the National Science Foundation provides more federal funding to mathematicians to pursue their research than any other federal agency, I point out that this huge appropriations package increases the NSF’s budget 2.5% to nearly \$8.5 billion. Once again, Congress did not accept President Trump’s proposal to cut the NSF budget (he had proposed a 6% decrease for FY21).

The American Mathematical Society had supported a request of \$9 billion for NSF in FY21,[1] seeking to address the effects of years of high-quality grant proposals that go unfunded due to limited funding. Those unmet needs continue. A 2019 National Science Board report stated that in FY18, “approximately \$3.4 billion was requested for declined proposals that were rated Very Good or higher in the merit review process.” The U.S. is leaving potentially transformative scientific research and efforts to enhance STEM education unfunded, while other countries are making significant investments.

With the final FY21 appropriations, NSF’s Research and Related Activities account—which funds six disciplinary research directorates—is increasing 2.6% to \$6.91 billion. One of these directorates is the Directorate for Physical and Mathematical Sciences (MPS), in which the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) is housed. The Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) is funded separately (it is the only research directorate with its own funding line), and its budget is increasing 3% to \$968 million.

Congress does not specify how NSF should distribute funding across the six disciplinary research directorates (excluding EHR), and it remains to be seen how much of this money will go to MPS and then to DMS. However, Congress does provide instruction in an explanatory statement accompanying the bill.

From this statement, here are prioritization highlights of potential interest to you.

  • Included is a sizable increase in funding for quantum information science (QIS) including for National Quantum Information Science Research Centers.
  • There will be continuing increased focus on artificial intelligence (AI) research.
  • There is an increase—though a much smaller increase than to QIS and AI—in funding for NSF’s EPSCoR program, supporting projects in states that receive a low proportion of federal research funds.
  • Inside EHR, a number of programs that aim to boost minority participation at all levels—from high school through the professoriate (including NSF INCLUDES, which is popular in mathematics) are ensured stability.

This new bill comes about eight months after the \$2 trillion CARES Act. That law appropriated roughly \$14 billion to higher education, split evenly between money for students and for institutions. The new bill provides \$23 billion in general relief funds for higher education institutions. This does not come close to the \$120 billion requested by university associations. You are probably well aware that institutions of higher education are hurting. Fall undergraduate enrollments declined nationally 3.6%, from the fall of 2019. The most notable drop was among first-time freshmen, whose enrollment declined 13.1%. At two-year colleges, these numbers are 10.1% and 21%, respectively. While the \$23 billion is highly disappointing, here are some interesting positive pieces of news:

  • There are several changes to the Pell Grant program.
    • There is a new formula for Pell Grant eligibility. Students from families who earn up to 175% of the federal poverty line, or up to 225% for single parents, will automatically qualify for a maximum grant. Those who make up to 275% of the poverty line, or 325% for single parents, are guaranteed at least the minimum award.
    • The maximum size of Pell Grants is increased to \$6,495, reflecting an inflationary \$150 increase.
    • “Second-chance Pell” grants are being reinstituted, reversing a quarter-century ban on Pell grants for incarcerated individuals.
  • FAFSA will be cut from more than 100 to 36 questions (parents of high schoolers take note!).
  • \$1.7 billion of the \$23 billion is reserved for minority-serving institutions (and about \$1 billion for for-profit colleges).

Looking ahead

We continue to push for pandemic relief funding for the NSF (such as via the RISE Act, mentioned above), to fund science immediately useful to addressing challenges raised by the pandemic, and also to mitigate disruptions to science and to STEM students’ and researchers’ personal professional trajectories.

As mentioned, Congress does not dictate how the NSF divides up its FY21 appropriations amongst the various science fields. Pretty soon we should know how much every division is to receive, including DMS.

President Biden will issue his first budget request this spring (March? April?) for FY22. The AMS is working with CNSF to determine our target for NSF appropriations in FY22; this amount should be known within the next few weeks. There are two reasons why I am hopeful for a more significant increase to NSF funding in the next years. First is that Senate Leader Schumer has indicated interest in his Endless Frontier Act (see my June 9 and June 18 posts in this blog). Second, the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have now expired.


[1] This amount is as determined by the Coalition for National Science Funding, the Steering Committee of which I sit on. CNSF bases its request on a recommendation included in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Restoring the Foundation report: that to secure America’s leadership in science and engineering and to ensure a growing economy, federal science agencies should be funded at an annual increasing rate of 4% real growth – that is, 4% plus inflation.


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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2 Responses to The massive omnibus funding bill and what it means for the math community

  1. Pearl susan Devenow says:

    What a BRILLIANT author

  2. Amy Cohen says:

    Will Abbe Herzig be working with you and CNSF to ensure that folks understand that UG mathematics instruction is crucial to workforce development at all degree-levels.

    Not directly related. AMS is concerned about how best to support full-time teaching-focused (FT TF) faculty with math PhDs working off the tenure-track in PhD-granting departments. (I was on an ad hoc committee formed under joint auspices of CoProf and Ed Ed with this charge.) The Chair of the AMS Com on Education wants to expand that concern to FT TF faculty in all math departments. Respecting and supporting these colleagues is critical to maintaining engaging and effective instruction for math majors (many of whom are second majors heading into work or grad study in a wide variety of math based fields), math minors, and future teachers of math at all levels.

    More on this in an email.

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