FY23 Budget Outcomes: National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation’s budget increased by 12% to $9.87 billion for fiscal year 2023, short of the 19% increase the Biden administration requested and the 35% increase Congress targeted in the CHIPS and Science Act . The $11.9 billion budget the act recommended for the year was meant as a first step toward roughly doubling the agency’s budget over five years, but future appropriations would have to increase markedly to meet that goal.
Unusually, Congress provided the entirety of this year’s increase through a supplementary appropriation that was not subject to the limit Democrats and Republicans negotiated on federal discretionary spending. Although Democrats highlighted that the supplement represents the largest dollar increase the agency has ever received, to sustain it Congress will either have to approve a follow-on supplement or boost NSF’s base budget, which could prove difficult given that the House’s new Republican majority is pushing to constrain federal spending.
Detailed policy direction for NSF is included in an explanatory statement accompanying the appropriations legislation and a report prepared by House appropriators. Summary figures are collected in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker .
CHIPS and Science Act implementation
The supplementary appropriation contained $1.04 billion for NSF, of which $335 million is specifically for implementing the CHIPS and Science Act. Congress did not stipulate what activities the money should support, other than to divide it between the accounts that fund research and STEM education. A significant fraction of the funds will likely go to NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), which the act formally authorized.
TIP directorate. The act recommended Congress provide the TIP directorate $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2023 and ramp up its annual budget to $4.1 billion by fiscal year 2027. However, the appropriations legislation did not specify a funding level for the directorate and its budget will likely be considerably lower than the target. The directorate’s budget last year was $450 million , mostly derived from existing programs that NSF transferred into the directorate after creating it in early 2022.
The TIP directorate’s current flagship initiative is to establish a set of Regional Innovation Engines across the U.S. to foster “use-inspired” R&D partnerships between diverse coalitions of organizations. The explanatory statement expresses general support for the Engines program and the House report directs NSF to provide the program at least $170 million for fiscal year 2023. NSF is currently reviewing proposals for the inaugural cohort of Engines and intends to provide each up to $160 million over 10 years.
The TIP directorate has also begun to spin up smaller-scale initiatives alongside the Engines program. Among them are a $60 million Accelerating Research Translation program that will help higher education institutions build capacity to translate basic research outcomes into practical applications and a $30 million Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program that aims to help individuals at any career stage pivot into technology-focused careers. The directorate has also launched a nearly $28 million program to develop open-source innovation ecosystems and a $20 million program designed to help less-resourced institutions successfully participate in the Engines.
EPSCoR. The Engines are part of a broader push by NSF to expand what it calls the “geography of innovation,” helping more regions of the country to participate in cutting-edge R&D. Congress is likewise pursuing this goal, in part by expanding the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which sets aside funds for states and territories that have historically received a small share of total NSF funding. This year’s appropriation directed NSF to increase funding for EPSCoR by at least $30 million to $245 million or more.
The CHIPS and Science Act also requires NSF to allocate at least 15.5% of its research funding to institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions in fiscal year 2023, ramping up to 20% by fiscal year 2029. It is unclear whether NSF will meet the target, which the act permits the agency to undershoot if it proves not to be “practicable.”
Semiconductor funding. As part of a $52 billion initiative to revitalize domestic semiconductor manufacturing, the CHIPS and Science Act is directly providing NSF with $200 million over five years on top of its base budget to support semiconductor workforce development initiatives, including $25 million this fiscal year. The funding will supplement a series of recent partnerships NSF has formed with semiconductor companies.
Other research programs
Congress generally does not provide detailed allocations for NSF’s research programs, granting it more discretion than other science agencies. The explanatory statement did however specify funding levels for a handful of priority areas and included direction for NSF on issues such as mitigating bias in the grant review process and strengthening research security policies.
‘Core research.’ NSF is instructed to provide at least level funding for “core research.” The term is defined to encompass research infrastructure, including “laboratories, observational networks, and other research infrastructure assets, such as the astronomy assets, the current academic research fleet, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and the national high-performance computing centers.”
Research security. Via the House report, Congress expressed concern that “certain open-source research capabilities at NSF could be used by adversaries against U.S. allies or U.S. interests.” Accordingly, it directed NSF to maintain a list of “open-source research capabilities that are known or suspected to have an impact on foreign military operations,” which is to be updated at least annually in collaboration with defense and intelligence agencies.
‘Power dynamics’ in research. Congress asked NSF to provide it a report by this June on “power dynamics in the research community,” explaining that “imbalanced relationships between lead researchers and graduate students, especially those from foreign countries, can lead to harmful outcomes.” It added that students may be “hesitant to voice their concerns out of fear of retaliation” and that “any potential or perceived bias in research security can have a deleterious effect on attracting top talent from foreign countries.” It also encouraged NSF to consider ways to “address potential bias and develop safe spaces to voice concerns without the fear of repercussion.”
Merit review bias. NSF is also directed to brief Congress on its work to understand and address “bias in the merit review process.” The agency must also comment on the option of adopting dual-anonymous peer review, wherein the identities of grant applicants and the reviewers are not revealed to each other. NASA has recently been expanding its use of dual-anonymous peer review to reduce bias.
Research administration support. NSF requested $50 million to launch a program called GRANTED (Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity), which aims to help “emerging and underserved” research institutions build capacity in grant proposal development and research administration. Congress expressed support for the program without specifying an initial budget.
AI and QIS. Congress allocated up to $686 million for artificial intelligence research, up from the minimum of $636 million it specified last year, and it encouraged NSF to continue expanding its national network of AI research institutes . In support of the National Quantum Initiative Act, Congress directed NSF to spend $235 million on quantum information science, up from its previous $220 million allocation.
Energy and climate research. NSF is directed to increase funding for its clean energy and climate research portfolio to at least $970 million, up from the $900 million minimum specified last year. NSF proposed an increase to $1.4 billion, in part to launch a major new cloud computing resource for climate research and establish regional hubs focused on “climate innovation, mitigation, adaptation, and equity.”
Telescopes. NSF is directed to spend up to $30 million from its research budget on design and development of facilities recommended in the latest decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics, released in November 2021. NSF has not yet committed to seek construction funding for any of the major ground-based facilities recommended by the survey, such as the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), and the next-generation Very Large Array (ngVLA). Late last year, five Senate Democrats petitioned the White House to include $150 million for design and development of such facilities in NSF’s fiscal year 2024 budget request, which is now expected to be released in early March .
Meanwhile, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile received its penultimate installment of funding from NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account, ramping down from $41 million to $15 million, as requested. Construction was delayed for about two years because of the pandemic, driving the telescope’s total cost up by nearly $100 million to $571 million.
Mid-scale infrastructure. Congress provided flat funding of $76 million within the MREFC account for the Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-2 program, which funds projects with total costs ranging from $20 million to $100 million. Congress also directed NSF to allocate up to the requested $50 million within its research account for the Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-1 program, which funds projects below $20 million.
Seismology facilities. Congress expressed support for a recent portfolio review of seismology and geodesy instrumentation funded by NSF’s Earth Sciences Division, particularly recommendations related to “broadening the funding mechanisms for long-term support for seismic and geodetic facilities.” Congress elaborated that it believes agencies that depend on data from these facilities should help support and recapitalize their instrumentation, specifically mentioning the U.S. Air Force, National Nuclear Security Administration, National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.