NSF Details Plans to Spend $1 Billion Budget Increase
The National Science Foundation has begun to elaborate on how it is spending the $1 billion increase Congress provided the agency for fiscal year 2023. Some of these plans are outlined in the agency’s budget request for fiscal year 2024, and top officials offered further details last week at a meeting of the advisory committee for the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS).
MPS head Sean Jones explained that about half the increase is going toward “firmly establishing” the new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), more than doubling its budget. He said much of the remainder would go to the STEM Education Directorate and cross-agency initiatives focused on workforce diversity, emerging technologies, research infrastructure, and research related to climate change and clean energy.
Members of the advisory committee expressed appreciation for the increases, but their conversation also alluded to strains in certain parts of MPS, which is receiving a modest 4% budget increase in the current fiscal year. NSF officials also cautioned that the budget outlook for the agency is complicated by the fact that Congress funded the increases using a special supplemental appropriation.
TIP launch prioritized over existing directorates
TIP is NSF’s first new directorate in more than 30 years and responds to interest from Congress in expanding the agency’s role in supporting “use-inspired” research and technology development.
NSF created TIP last March by transferring relevant units from other parts of NSF, such as the Small Business Innovation Research program, giving the directorate an initial budget of around $400 million. Congress then formally authorized TIP through the CHIPS and Science Act, which set a target budget of $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2023 within a recommended $11.9 billion agency topline. Congress ultimately provided almost $9.9 billion to NSF in total and the agency estimates it will allocate about $880 million to TIP.
Meanwhile, NSF’s other research directorates have received relatively small increases over the past two budget cycles.
One MPS advisory committee member observed there is a perception among some agency grantees that TIP’s creation is straining other parts of the agency.
“On the ground level, from the principal investigator level, even if you look at the budget increases that have been received to the core programs … it actually feels like you’re going backwards because they aren’t keeping up with the financial reality that we’re in with 7%, 8%, 9% inflation rates,” remarked Auburn University physics professor Edward Thomas Jr.
“There still is a lot of concern at the PI level certainly that even with these inputs coming into directorates, the creation of TIP is putting a lot of stress and the core programs aren’t actually growing at the same kind of paces to keep up,” he added.
Jones stressed that TIP is envisioned as a “horizontal” directorate that accelerates progress on ideas generated from the existing “vertical” directorates. NSF Budget Director Caitlyn Fife similarly noted that part of TIP’s budget is “going to support basic research activities back in the [other] directorates.”
Of the additional funds going to TIP this year, $200 million is for creating the first cohort of Regional Innovation Engines , which are multi-institutional collaborations across the U.S. that will aim to accelerate development of priority technologies and address pressing societal challenges such as climate change. From the remainder of the increase, $45 million is for the new Accelerating Research Translation (ART) program, $20 million is for the new Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program, and $10 million is for a new Entrepreneurial Fellows program.
Explaining the magnitude of the increases for TIP, Fife remarked, “We’re maturing it to be a full directorate, to be fair, because that’s what we’ve set out to do.” She noted NSF is seeking to increase the directorate’s budget by 35% to $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2024, which would make it similar in size to the directorate for computer sciences and engineering.
NSF pressing to keep $1 billion boost in base budget
The head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, Amanda Greenwell, noted that TIP’s creation has broadened the agency’s base of supporters in Congress, saying that lawmakers beyond the “usual suspects” advocated for the agency in the push to pass the CHIPS and Science Act.
“We need to know where the pain points are and be able to talk about the tradeoffs and other issues, but we have a huge opportunity that we haven’t had before. And that comes with pros and cons, right? We are on the radar now,” she remarked.
Greenwell called the $1 billion boost “historic,” as it is the largest year-over-year increase the agency has ever received in absolute terms, though she also cautioned that it came from a special supplemental appropriation.
She noted NSF is hoping Congress will count the supplement as part of the agency’s base budget in upcoming negotiations over the budget for fiscal year 2024, which begins on Oct. 1. She added that Congress will likely resort to a stopgap spending measure to buy more time to finalize the budget and that NSF wants the stopgap to treat the supplement as part of the agency’s base budget. Otherwise, NSF’s budget would revert to its fiscal year 2022 level for the stopgap’s duration.
Reaching the ‘missing millions’ another priority for new funds
In addition to standing up the TIP Directorate, another top NSF priority is attracting more individuals from underrepresented backgrounds into the science and engineering workforce, a population it refers to as the “missing millions.”
NSF has estimated that for this workforce to be representative of the overall U.S. population by 2030 the number of women must nearly double from their numbers in 2020, the number of Black or African American people must more than double, and the number of Hispanic or Latino people must triple. In parallel with this focus on demographic diversity, NSF is also pushing to increase the geographic and institutional diversity of the organizations that win research grants from the agency.
In support of these goals, NSF is significantly ramping up funding for a variety of programs focused on broadening participation .
At the MPS advisory committee meeting, Jones highlighted how the directorate has expanded a postdoctoral research fellowship program that is specifically for people from minority backgrounds and is launching a program called ExpandQISE dedicated to broadening the number of institutions capable of conducting research in quantum information science and engineering.
The committee also received a briefing on how the directorate is expanding programs that support collaborations between minority-serving institutions and MPS-funded centers or facilities. Its materials research division has long operated such a program and the directorate has begun applying that model within its divisions for physics , chemistry , and mathematical sciences . It also rebooted a version of the program operated by its division for astronomy .
Outside of the MPS directorate, NSF is expanding the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which funds research in states and territories that historically received a small share of NSF funds. The program’s budget is increasing by nearly 20% to $255 million for fiscal year 2023.
NSF also plans to spend $45 million in fiscal year 2023 to launch a program called GRANTED (Growing Research Access for Nationally Transformative Equity and Diversity), which will provide grant administration support to “emerging and underserved research institutions.”
Fife explained, “We’re trying to think differently about how we might be inspiring the missing millions. … A barrier that had been identified is that sometimes you hear people say, ‘Well, we can only fund the proposals that get to us.’ Okay, well, how do we help some more of those proposals get to us?”