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Some academic researchers worry that cuts to the National Science Foundation’s budget will make the United States less competitive on a global scale.

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Following contentious budget negotiations this year, Congress cut the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) annual budget by 8 percent in a move that’s worrying academic researchers.

“Congressional failure to restore NSF’s budget jeopardizes our country’s future economic and national security,” said an emailed statement from Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 71 public and private research institutions.

“America’s continued scientific leadership and global competitiveness are at risk here—including in crucial areas like AI [artificial intelligence], quantum computing, advanced manufacturing, climate change, and creating the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] workforce we need in order to continue as the world’s technological and scientific leader,” Snyder said. “Forcing NSF to make serious cuts also negatively impacts grant success for researchers interested in working on critical scientific advancements, further discouraging careers in STEM.”

Federal science agencies fund more than half of university-led research and development initiatives, and about 24 percent of that support comes directly from the NSF, an independent agency that supports science and engineering in all 50 states and U.S. territories.

Of the $54 billion universities spent on federally funded research and development in Fiscal Year 2022, $6 billion came from the NSF, making it the third-largest research funding stream behind the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense.

University researchers and their advocates expected even more funding opportunities in the years to come after Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act in 2022. The landmark legislation, which President Biden said would “keep the United States the leader in the industries of tomorrow,” authorized $200 billion in spending on scientific research, development and commercialization over the next decade.

That plan specifically authorized the NSF to receive $81 billion between 2023 and 2027, which would double the agency’s budget. But because the NSF’s funding is categorized as discretionary—alongside numerous other federal agencies—Congress is not obligated to fund at those authorized levels.

But two years after the CHIPS Act passed, the NSF’s budget is around $8.5 billion short of the funding levels the legislation authorized the agency to have reached by this year.

In Fiscal Year 2023, Congress appropriated about $9.5 billion to the NSF—about $2.4 billion less than the $11.9 billion the CHIPS Act authorized for the year. The NSF did end up receiving $338 million in supplemental funding, which boosted its budget for last year to $9.9 billion.

But last May, Congress and President Biden agreed to keep spending on nondefense discretionary programs flat for Fiscal Year 2024 to avoid defaulting on the government’s debt. That resulted in lower funding levels for numerous agencies, including the NSF, which received $6.6 billion less than the $15.6 billion the CHIPS Act had authorized for the year.

“Congress tends to look at what happened the year before and makes funding decisions relative to that,” said Bobby Kogan, senior director of federal budget policy at the Center for American Progress. “People are reasonably worried that if things get stuck at a lower level it’s hard to build it back up.”

And since Congress, which is just starting to negotiate the Fiscal Year 2025 budget, only intends to raise total domestic discretionary spending by 1 percent—some agencies may end up with more or less—the NSF may have another year of funding that is below the level the CHIPS Act authorized.

“One percent isn’t going to keep up with inflation, so on average programs are going to fall even further behind next year,” Kogan said. “There’s a double worry. One is the immediate impact [of having] to do less. Two is the worry that NSF and hundreds of other programs will be locked in at a lower level.”

While an NSF spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed in a statement that agency representatives are working with members of Congress and the White House to “optimize existing resources to ensure critical investments are made in science, innovation, and the STEM workforce,” agency officials remain concerned about the future.

“The current fiscal environment coupled with the intense global competition for leadership in STEM present serious challenges for the nation,” the NSF spokesperson said in an email. “There will be real impacts across the research enterprise with this reduction to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). It is difficult to place this in the context of rapid, large-scale science investments by our competitors such as China with the express purpose of outcompeting the United States.”

That worry has already started trickling down to university researchers, who are relying on NSF funding to carry out major projects.

‘Shocked and Disappointed’

Chaouki Abdallah, executive vice president for research at Georgia Institute of Technology, said he was beyond “shocked and disappointed” when he learned about the NSF’s budget picture earlier this year.

“At a time when we are in competition to rebuild our manufacturing base and protect our research leadership and critical technologies, the message sent by cutting NSF is that we are not serious about winning the global race,” he said in an email. “Unless we continue funding NSF and other federal agencies at the promised levels, we will not be able to maintain America’s technological advantage.”

Georgia Tech had a $1.45 billion research and development portfolio in Fiscal Year 2023. While $950 million of that funding comes from defense contracts to support military-related research, the remaining $513 million comes from various federal agencies, industry and philanthropic organizations, including 20 percent ($100 million) from the NSF, making it the largest supporter of Georgia Tech’s domestic research.

Abdallah said the swings in federal research funding are disruptive to research efforts and make it difficult for universities to plan large multi-year research initiatives, which typically involve sponsoring graduate students and recruiting faculty.

That could mean drying up the pipeline of aspiring scientific researchers.

Abdallah said graduate students often say their involvement in NSF-funded research at the undergraduate level sparked their interest—and aided their success—in pursuing graduate school.

“That is especially important if they did not attend an R1 university as undergraduates,” he said. “We are worried that cuts to NSF will hurt our longstanding efforts to attract domestic students to STEM.”

But with less money, he said, the NSF will have “no choice” but to reduce the volume and size of its research awards.

Not ‘Going In the Right Direction’

“This then reduces the ability of universities to create the fundamental knowledge necessary for future economic activities and technologies,” Abdallah said in an email. “In addition, while more established and large research universities will suffer disruptions, the impact on smaller institutions and less resourced institutions will be greater as they cannot afford to “ride” some of the cuts.”

That’s part of the worry for Parag Chitnis, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming, which is focused on growing its research portfolio and attaining R1 status. NSF funding, which made up 26 percent of the extramural research grant funding UW received in 2023, was helping UW move closer to that goal.

“There is definitely a worry that the growth of research at the university will be hampered because of reduction in funding to the agency” that’s supported UW’s growth, said Chitnis, who previously worked for the NSF and has lobbied federal lawmakers for more NSF funding.

In addition to signaling the commitment of the United States to remain competitive on a global research scale, the CHIPS Act also earmarked NSF funding to support institutions in smaller, rural states—such as Wyoming and Mississippi—that don’t always have the resources to compete against much larger research universities for limited federal funding.

“These are states that have good leadership, good institutions emerging, and they are ready to play,” Sethuraman Panchanathan, NSF’s director, told Roll Call in 2022. “They are playing already, but it’s just that they need more successes, more wind beneath their wings.”

One of those new initiatives is the NSF Regional Innovation Engines program, which is geared toward “spurring economic growth in regions that have not fully participated in the technology boom of the past few decades,” according to the agency’s website.

In January of this year—as Congress was negotiating the federal budget—the NSF announced that it had awarded 10 regional innovation teams $15 million each over the next two years.

The Colorado-Wyoming Climate Resilience Engine was one of them, and will focus on carbon management technologies. Numerous institutions in Wyoming and Colorado are involved in the partnership, including the University of Wyoming, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

If the program is fully funded, the Colorado-Wyoming Climate Resilience Engine, as well as the other nine teams, could each get up to $160 million total from NSF over the next ten years.

“The past two years have been funded,” Chitnis, UW’s research VP said. “We’re now worried all this great progress we’re starting may not get supported in the remaining years because NSF may not have sufficient funds.”

Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for research and innovation at UC-Boulder which received 24 percent of its federal research funding from NSF in 2023, said he’s concerned for the long-term future of NSF funding.

“The feeling that we had with CHIPS and Science in particular was that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance science and technology in critical areas,” he said. “This NSF cut is a signal that things aren’t going in the right direction.”

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