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Chemistry At NSF Set To Shine

President’s fiscal 2012 budget provides great opportunities, even as 2011 budget remains uncertain

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 21, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 12

In a time of fiscal uncertainty, President Barack Obama rolled out a fiscal 2012 budget proposal that is not only good for the National Science Foundation, but also good for the chemical research it supports. Specifically, the President’s plan provides $7.8 billion for the agency, a 13.0% increase over what it’s been working with under the 2011 continuing resolution, and $258 million for the Chemistry Division, up 10.4% from its current operating budget.

“In these challenging fiscal times, when difficult financial choices have to be made to return our nation to solid financial footing, this budget request reflects the confidence that the President is placing in NSF as an agency,” NSF Director Subra Suresh said during the 2012 budget rollout. “This budget acknowledges that NSF not only innovates through its support of fundamental research in all of the disciplinary areas, but also, through that innovation, generates jobs, grows the economy, adds immeasurably to the global store of knowledge, and educates our workforce.”

The proposed 2012 NSF budget invests in several agencywide programs aimed at tackling multidisciplinary societal problems. Such programs include Science, Engineering & Education for Sustainability (SEES); Research at the Interface of Biological, Mathematical & Physical Sciences (BioMaPS); and Science & Engineering Beyond Moore’s Law. And because chemistry has a key role in these efforts, the President’s funding blueprint directs the Chemistry Division to invest accordingly.

“We’re pleased that the Administration recognizes the importance of chemistry as being part of the solution of the big problems that confront human civilization,” Chemistry Division Director Matthew S. Platz says.

Of the division’s $258 million budget request, 96.0%, or $248 million, would support research. Some $196 million of this support would go toward core research programs, including single-investigator awards such as the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards. The remaining $52 million is nearly equally spilt between funding for centers and targeted solicitations for special programs.

Interestingly, the level of targeted solicitations, which are set by the budget request, is higher than in the past, Platz points out. In fiscal 2009, he notes, the division spent just over $1 million of its research budget on such targeted solicitations. In the 2012 request, that level is set to grow to around $25 million.

“While the Administration strongly supports science, and chemistry in particular, we’re getting a lot of direction on how to invest the money,” he says.

One program in which the Chemistry Division is investing heavily both in terms of targeted solicitations and research focus is SEES. This NSF-wide program will focus on sustainability, with priority research in basic climate and energy science.

“It’s hard to argue against sustainability as being the most important scientific problem we have to solve,” Platz says. “At the heart of all the problems we face—food, freshwater, energy—we need to discover basic, fundamental, totally new chemistry if we’re going to solve those problems,” he notes.

All told, roughly a quarter of the division’s proposed 2012 budget, or $63 million, will support SEES. In addition to the targeted solicitation support, this investment includes a combination of core research grants, centers projects, education programs, and infrastructure development. This combination captures work that is in line with SEES and would be funded by the division in the absence of any NSF-wide directives. For example, single-investigator research that could be tagged as part of SEES could involve a project to study proton-coupled electron transfer or one that looks at atmospheric aerosols.

“To most chemists it’s obvious that chemistry will be key to any advances in sustainability, but I’m not sure that fact is well understood outside of the chemical enterprise,” American Chemical Society President Nancy B. Jackson says. “That NSF is making such a strong commitment and investment in chemistry in order to make those advances in sustainability is really exciting.”

But not all Chemistry Division programs fare well under the President’s request. For example, the American Competitiveness in Chemistry-Fellowship program, which will be accepting proposals for 2011 awards next month, is zeroed out in the 2012 budget. According to Platz, this is because the SEES Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in the 2012 request has many of the same features and it would be redundant to support both.

The Chemistry Research Instrumentation & Facilities: Departmental Multi-user Instrumentation program would also not be funded in 2012. The infrastructure program, which received nearly $10 million in 2010, is being suspended for a year to allow the division to fund grant renewal applications at historic rates from the extra awards made under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“I thought it would be less disruptive to the community to take the money that we typically spend on instruments and use it for one year to handle the spike in stimulus-year renewal applications that are coming in,” Platz explains. Of the 80 awards made with stimulus funds, about half are expected to be renewed, he predicts. “It would be more disruptive to decline a large number of renewals than to postpone investment in infrastructure.”

Such investment decisions will allow the division to maintain strong support of basic chemical research. “I am doing everything I can to protect the core of curiosity-driven, single-investigator research,” Platz says.

But enthusiasm for the 2012 budget is being tempered by the fact that Congress is still wrestling with the 2011 budget. NSF, like all facets of the government, is still waiting to see what its budget will be for the current fiscal year, which is nearly half over (see page 11).

“Any cuts to NSF’s budget will be devastating,” Suresh said following the 2012 budget rollout. He noted that the agency is entering an era when tools are being developed to measure phenomena in new and novel ways. A decrease in funding would hamper the agency’s ability to continue to move science forward.

A direct result of this uncertainty can be seen in the Chemistry Division’s grant approval process. According to Platz, the division is awarding proposals ranked in the top 10%, rejecting those in the bottom 75%, and holding those in the 11th to 25th percentile until the foundation 2011 budget is set.

“We are being cautious and conservative, but we’re not paralyzed,” Platz says.


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