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NSF Leaders Warn Congress Against Further Budget Cuts

MAY 17, 2024
As NSF grapples with an 8% cut this year, agency leaders are telling Congress that further reductions would pose serious risks to STEM talent development and national security.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
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NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and former NSF board chair Dan Reed testify before the House Science Committee on May 16.

(Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA))

More cuts to the National Science Foundation’s budget could seriously hurt the ability of the U.S. to develop, attract, and retain scientific talent, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan cautioned Congress during a House Science Committee hearing this week on the future of the agency.

Congress reduced NSF’s budget by 8% to about $9 billion for the current fiscal year, a cut which Panchanathan said will impede the agency’s ability to move “at speed and at scale” across its portfolio.

Describing NSF as “the nation’s talent agency,” Panchanathan said that without more money the U.S. risks wasting STEM talent and failing to keep up with competitors such as China.

“This is the single most significant national security challenge that we face today: the fact that we are not able to train all the talent that is ready to be trained,” Panchanathan said during the May 16 hearing. “This is not the time to slow down.”

Panchanathan said that the Chinese government plans to spend 10% more on science this year and is placing a higher priority on supporting fundamental research than it has in the past.

Fellow witness Dan Reed, who recently completed his term as chair of NSF’s oversight board, described the cut to NSF as “devastating” and used his testimony to emphasize how science supports broader national goals.

“We’re failing to develop the domestic STEM workforce needed to remain globally competitive. We’re simply not moving at the speed of our competitors,” Reed said. “Global science and technology leadership is neither an abstraction nor an empty slogan. It’s the wellspring of our national power, safety, prosperity, and happiness.”

In addition to calling for Congress to fund NSF at its requested level of $10.2 billion for fiscal year 2025, Reed proposed it pass a “National Defense and Education Act 2.0” to inspire more children to pursue science careers and improve science teaching at all levels. The original NDEA was enacted in 1958 to improve STEM education in the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite the year prior.

He also proposed Congress examine the obstacles to implementing a whole-of-government national strategy for science and technology.

“I’m not advocating for fully centralized control, that’s foolish. But the bottom-up distributed process we use now is just not sufficient. If we’re to compete successfully in the global race to the future, I believe we must think, organize, and act in some fundamentally different ways,” Reed said.

While many committee members expressed support for increasing NSF’s budget, House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) cautioned against the use of supplementary funding mechanisms, which Congress relied on to provide a $1 billion increase to NSF in the previous fiscal year.

“Unfortunately, this led to a feast and famine situation,” Lucas said. “I’m not here to point fingers, but we must do everything we can to avoid this in the future. Innovation thrives on stable, predictable funding.”

Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) pointed out that the House Appropriations Committee had just published its topline budget proposals for fiscal year 2025, which include a 1% increase to defense spending and a 6% decrease to non-defense spending. Lofgren then asked the witnesses to explain what effect such a cut would have on NSF, coming on the heels of the one it just received.

“Devastating is the one-word answer,” Reed said. “This is about more than science and discovery. This is about national security, and it is about economic competitiveness ... We’re leaving the future on the table.”

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