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NSF: Basic Science Set To Grow

by Andrea Widener
April 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 16

Credit: National Science Foundation
A table shows that NSF is set for continued growth as increases are slated for core programs and the number of grants is expected to jump.
Credit: National Science Foundation

With a proposed increase of 7.3% over fiscal 2012, the National Science Foundation’s focus on basic research has made the agency one of the lucky ones in the President’s 2014 budget proposal. The requested $7.6 billion will mean significant increases in programs that the President cares about, including basic science research, science education, and advanced manufacturing.

That situation is in contrast to 2013, when across-the-board budget cuts called sequestration took NSF’s budget in the opposite direction. The budget for 2013 was not finalized when the 2014 budget planning process was under way, but the agency estimates its 2013 budget to be around $6.9 billion, which takes into account a $356 million reduction for sequestration. In 2012, the agency’s budget was $7.1 billion.

“Despite continuing budget uncertainties, the President’s 2014 budget recognizes NSF’s vital importance to the nation,” says Cora B. Marrett, NSF’s acting director.

In the proposed budget, NSF’s research activities—which Marrett calls the centerpiece of NSF’s mission—get the biggest proposed boost, with a 7.9% increase from 2012 to $6.2 billion in 2014.

The newly combined Office of International & Integrative Activities receives the largest percentage increase among the research directorates at 34.6% as compared with 2012, for a total 2014 budget of $537 million. This increase includes bumps in two programs: INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research & Education) and the National Graduate Research Fellowships.

Funding would almost double for the INSPIRE program, which supports many interdisciplinary research activities. The President’s budget proposes $31 million in 2014 for the program, up from $19 million in 2012. This increase will allow it to pursue even more interdisciplinary grants.

In addition, NSF proposes a major increase to the National Graduate Research Fellowships—taking the program’s budget to $325 million in 2014, up $127 million over 2012. The larger budget will allow NSF to give 700 more fellowships, for a total of 2,700 in 2014.

Even more NSF fellowships may be available in the future, in part because of a government-wide consolidation of science education programs. That consolidation makes NSF a lead agency on undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and graduate fellowships. NSF is still figuring out exactly how that money will be spent, including which fellowship programs will be expanded or created.

The Engineering Directorate is also slated for a large jump in funding for 2014, with a 10.5% increase from 2012 to $911 million. And the Mathematical & Physical Sciences Directorate, which includes the Chemistry Division, is set to grow by 5.9% to $1.4 billion in 2014.

Among the disciplinary divisions, the Chemistry Division will receive one of the largest percent increases, with a proposed 8.4% bump from 2012 to $254 million in 2014. The Molecular & Cellular Biosciences Division is set for a similar increase, growing by 8.6% to $136 million in 2014.

NSF’s overall proposed level of funding would increase the total number of agencywide research grant awards from 7,900 in 2012 to 8,800 in 2014. The agency estimates that 22% of grant applications will be funded, up slightly from 21% in 2012. The increasing number of applications is of concern, however, and NSF plans to spend $4 million in 2014 to study new ways to streamline how it processes applications in its merit review system.

In addition to funding grants, NSF also plans to spend 6.1% more on major construction projects, including supporting two new telescopes. The overall budget for construction and equipment purchases would rise from $198 million in 2012 to $210 million in 2014. The project with the biggest budget in 2014 would be the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which will get $98 million in 2014 to place 30 observing stations across the U.S. to look for ecological changes with a wide range of causes.

Although advanced manufacturing isn’t a major part of NSF’s budget, it is a presidential priority. NSF will be spending an additional $49 million in 2014 for a total budget of $160 million on research related to high-tech manufacturing. That will include an investment in computer-driven manufacturing systems, a robotics development effort, and additional support of the federal Materials Genome Initiative, which aims to catalog the properties of many materials including those important to industry.

NSF will also put $20 million toward the President’s new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a multiagency effort that aims to develop technologies needed to understand the workings of the human brain.



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