Federal Relations

May 19, 2014

House Committee to Consider the FIRST Act

On Wednesday, the House Science Committee will mark up HR 4186, the FIRST Act, a bill which will reauthorize NIST, NSF and a host of other federal science-focused programs. This is the 113th Congress’s version of the America COMPETES reauthorization.

While in previous Congresses this legislation has been bipartisan and uncontroversial, the FIRST Act has been increasingly acrimonious through both committee hearings and markups. The political situation has been exacerbated by interactions between NSF and House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), which has been previously chronicled in the Federal Affairs Blog.

The higher education community has been, and remains, concerned about this legislation (and its various iterations) on several issues including: the overall funding level for NSF; directorate-level funding; and some significant policy changes including the public access embargo period.

Of primary concern is the change to not only the overall funding levels, but that Congress now specifically authorizes the various directorates within NSF for funding allocations. NSF has never had individual directorates called out for specific funding levels, which causes Congressionally mandated “winners” and “losers.”

Most troubling is the authorization funding levels. When you compare the proposed NSF authorization levels of FY14 to FY15, there are several notable increases in funding at the directorate level.  Some NSF directorates receive significant increases at the expense of others.  Here are the numbers:

  •  Biological Sciences (Bio) +5.4%
  •  Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) +7.7%
  •  Engineering (ENG) +7.0%
  •  Geosciences (GEO) -2.9%
  •  Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) +7.7%
  •  Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) -22.1%
  •  Six cumulative: 3.2%

NSF would receive an overall 1.5% increase.

Some Members of Congress may suggest that the FY15 authorization levels in the FIRST Act provide real funding increases for NSF — the total level of funding for NSF is only up by 1.5% — however, this increase does not cover the cost of inflation (1.7 percent). In reality, NSF would have a .2% cut after inflation.

The Office of Federal Relations will continue to track the legislation as it works through the committee process.