Major changes coming to the National Science Foundation(?)


There is a lot going on in Washington vis-à-vis the National Science Foundation. Several at-first-separate congressional efforts are converging with increased support from the White House and renewed public enthusiasm for, and confidence and interest in science, providing a real opportunity for change. For me, this is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow and modernize the agency that supports more mathematics research than any other federal funding source. Indeed, over 60% of federally-funded research in mathematics done at colleges and universities is funded by the NSF.[1]

What will we see? I expect to see a new directorate at the NSF that—in some way yet to be determined—focuses on bringing fundamental research to address grand societal challenges more directly and to market more seamlessly. There will also be a significant boost in the size of NSF’s budget that will fund the new directorate. We may well see additional increased money for the NSF to address past low funding, the urgent need to broaden the STEM workforce and include all Americans who want to be involved, and to enable us to stay a strong global partner to other countries that have been investing much more than we have over recent history. This last point is often referred to as “staying competitive with China,” but can also be thought of as “giving the U.S. the opportunity to be our best selves.”[2]

Every year, Congress decides how much money the NSF will get for the next year; this occurs through the annual appropriations process. In addition, and every so often, Congress passes a law that modifies what the NSF can do, and what it must do, with its appropriated funds.[3] “Reauthorizations” for the NSF take place regularly; the most recent comprehensive one took place in 2010.[4]

Right now, there is a flurry of activity related to reauthorization of the NSF. As you know, for a bill to become law, the House and Senate must each pass the identical bill. At this stage, there are competing bills:

  • The Endless Frontier Act
  • The NSF for the Future Act

The Endless Frontier Act has been introduced (identical versions) in both Senate and House, while the latter only in the House. They have bill numbers S 1260, HR 2731, and HR 2225, respectively, if you are wonky and want to have a look at the full bill texts, the bill summaries, or the list of cosponsors. In recent weeks, there have been at least three congressional hearings on these bills. For a gentler read, see their press releases, here and here. Nice coverage of the NSF for the Future Act, written by House Science Committee Chair Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, appears here.

The main point of this post is to tell you a little bit about the bills, including some key differences. I have been working with science society and university government relations colleagues in DC to give feedback and help shape these bills. The AMS Committee on Science Policy has also weighed in. Our communities have been listened to, and some of the provisions in the original Endless Frontier bill (introduced last year) that concerned us are now gone. These bills bring significant increases in funding to the NSF, and modernize the agency.

Both bills expand the NSF by adding a new directorate, increasing the number of directorates from seven to eight. The NSF for the Future Act authorizes programs across the NSF to address societal and national problems, including the establishment of the new directorate, which they name the “Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions.” The Endless Frontier Act establishes the new “Directorate for Technology and Innovation,” and would additionally legislate how the money is spent—35% must go to university technology centers, 15% to scholarships and fellowships, and so on. The NSF for the Future Act does not dictate in this way.

The Endless Frontier’s new directorate is to advance innovation in ten key technology areas:

(1) artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other software advances

(2) high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware

(3) quantum computing and information systems

(4) robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing

(5) natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation

(6) advanced communications technology

(7) biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology

(8) cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies

(9) advanced energy, batteries, and industrial efficiency

(10) advanced materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other focus areas

The focus areas for the NSF for the Future’s new directorate are to be determined by the NSF Director but should address these challenges:

(1) Climate change and environmental sustainability

(2) Global competitiveness in critical technologies

(3) Cybersecurity

(4) National security

(5) STEM education and workforce

(6) Social and economic inequality

Both bills require regular review and updating of these topics.

The bills have lots of provisions. Examples that appear in one or both and may be of interest to the math community include:

  • Protects congressional funding to the other directorates so that this directorate cannot grow without the rest of NSF growing as well;
  • Provides guidelines for how the new directorate can partner with the existing directorates;
  • Creates new programs to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of technologies from the lab to the marketplace and authorizes coordination with state and local economic development stakeholders to build regional innovation ecosystems in communities across the country;
  • Defines “Emerging Research Institution” (ERI) as a university with an established undergraduate student program that receives < \$35M in federal research funding and establishes a pilot program connecting R1 and ERI “partners” to advance research and education;
  • Requires consortia awards to include (as lead or partner) at least one Historically Black college or university (HBCU), Minority Serving Institution (MSI), institution participating in EPSCoR, ERI, or Community College;
  • Creates a Chief Diversity Officer at NSF;
  • Adds several items to improve graduate education:
    • Supports activities to facilitate career exploration for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers;
    • Increases the number of graduate student fellowships (through GRFP) and research traineeships for graduate students (through NRT) in all fields;
  • Provides significant increases to the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program and requires outreach to HBCUs, MSIs, higher education programs that serve veterans and rural communities, and ERIs;

In President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, he included \$50 billion for NSF, in part for a new directorate. Additionally, the President’s preliminary fiscal year 2022 budget requests \$10.2 billion for the NSF. These proposals from the President indicate to me that—even if we don’t see the huge amounts of new funding for the NSF as proposed in the current legislative proposals—we will see a very healthy increase to NSF appropriations for fiscal year 2022.

As mentioned, there have been hearings in Congress about these efforts. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan—who began this lead position in June 2020—has presented his vision for the new directorate as well as his other priorities for the agency and has been questioned by House and Senate appropriators. The Endless Frontier Act was to have its mark-up in the Senate on April 28, but this was postponed (so, it may have happened by the time you read this).

What are the remaining concerns and details to sort out? Concerns, of course, come from all sides, and are focused on a variety of the bills’ provisions. While expanding the NSF has bipartisan support, appropriators on both sides have not directly endorsed the administration’s request for a 20% increase in NSF’s \$8.5 billion annual budget (to \$10.2 billion) or the \$50 billion in the American Jobs Plan. The creation of a new NSF directorate is in the hands of authorizers—not appropriators—but, nonetheless, they have expressed a variety of views on what any expansion of the NSF should prioritize. One view, held especially by Republicans, is that more states and institutions that have historically received a lower share of research funding from the NSF should be prioritized. Many lawmakers are generally concerned that the country maintain its ability to compete with China, and with making sure strong research security is in place. Indeed, the Endless Frontier Act addresses research funded by the federal government through the lens of national security and global competitiveness. (I might add that there is at least one other bill in the NSF reauthorization mix–the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (SALSTA). This bill does not promote a new directorate at NSF, authorizes a number of agencies, and is focused on securing our research enterprise from challenges presented by China.) Congressional members from both sides who have national labs—which are funded by the Department of Energy—in their states question why these labs are not getting similar boosts. The most recent version of the Endless Frontier Act was expanded to include programs administered by agencies other than the NSF, including by the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy. In contrast, the NSF for the Future Act is solely focused on the NSF.

While an earlier version of the Endless Frontier Act authorized \$100 billion (over 5 years) for the NSF with no less than \$2 billion specifically for the new directorate, the latest version suggests that all \$100 billion is for the new directorate; this is a major change, and one that I will keep an eye on.

In terms of keeping competitive with China, we can look to data about investments. In his testimony before the House on April 15, Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian said:

“The United States’ R&D investment as a percent of GDP now ranks 10th in the world, behind major global competitors such as Taiwan, Japan, Germany, and South Korea, which rank at the top in this metric. With the nation’s federal spending as a percent of GDP dropping from more than 2 percent at the end of the 1960s to just slightly less than 0.7 percent currently, we have ceded considerable ground in the race to discover, innovate and create the fair, equitable and productive economies of the future.”

At that same hearing, Norm Augustine said:

“In China over half of baccalaureate degrees are awarded in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, whereas the comparable figure in the U.S. is 19 percent. Forty percent of K-12 students in the U.S. are underrepresented minorities that ultimately receive only 7 percent of the doctorates granted in STEM fields. Women receive 58 percent of U.S. undergraduate degrees, yet receive only 17 percent of the doctorates awarded in the U.S. in the natural sciences and engineering. The U.S. could vastly increase its number of contributing scientists and engineers were it simply to attract representative portions of all its domestic groups into the STEM fields.”

Mathematician and Notre Dame Provost Marie Lynn Miranda testified at another hearing on the Endless Frontier Act. Her opening testimony pointed out “that nearly all of the technological innovations that enable our modern society emerge from a deliberately built foundation of federally funded research conducted over many years at universities or federally funded research laboratories.” She focused some of her remarks on “education as a foundation of innovation” and urged the committee to broaden participation by “thinking outside the pipe.” In a later line of questioning, she gave a shout out to the AWM for building and supporting community amongst women in mathematics (this was a highlight moment for me!). She talked about the low percentage (61%) of U.S. high schools that are able to offer physics; students from such schools “will start college facing a much tougher path for pursuing STEMM degrees.”

We need aggressive strategies to make sure that all children in this country have the opportunity to become scientists and engineers, and we must invest more in our excellent and complex higher educational system including to support scientific research done at universities. The proposed legislations discussed here provide support for doing just this.




[2] This phrase was offered to me by a congressional staff member when I asked how we might all think about this if not as “competing with China.”


[4] For a discussion about the legislative origin of the NSF, and a history of its reauthorizations, see the appendix beginning on page 18 of On page 22, you will find an interesting history of proposed and actual growth rates for the agency.

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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