November 22, 2002

Legislation Seeks to Double Research Funds

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The National Science Foundation could see its funding double over the next five years pending White House endorsement of an authorization bill that would pledge those funds to basic science research.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) makes competitive grants to individual researchers at colleges and universities around the country. Last year, Cornell received $84 million in NSF grants.

“The most important implications for Cornell would be how the new funding is allocated,” said Robert Richardson, vice provost for research. “The NSF’s director has insisted that the major portion of the funding increase would go to individual investigators in the form of increased grant sizes, from an average of roughly $90,000 per year to more than $200,000 per year.”

The duration of a grant, which now lasts two or three years, would be increased to five years. Under the plan, this burden would be eased as writing grant proposals is a major investment in time and effort for many researchers.

“The fact that these would come around every two or three years was a pain. I know I spent a lot of time writing as well as reading proposals,” Richardson said.

The short duration of current NSF grants can create other problems as well. “It creates issues of stability. If you are hiring graduate students and it takes five years to complete their course of study, then a two or three year grant makes it difficult to commit funding to them,” said Prof. Gregory Martin, plant pathology.

Martin’s research into plant disease resistance has been supported by NSF grants since 1989.

“There’s a lot of pressure to increase salaries so as to keep up with inflation and it is difficult to do that with the small grant sizes,” Martin said.

According to Richardson, graduate students could benefit from the proposal as the increase in funding would raise their average salary from about $16,000 to $28,000 a year.

Framers of the legislation hope that this increase will draw a greater number and variety of students into graduate level education including those coming out of college with heavy financial obligations, Richardson said.

“The final area of emphasis would be on infrastructure improvements. Universities have a large investment in major research equipment but much of it is becoming outdated. The funds would permit a program for systematically updating research facilities,” Richardson said.

The National Science Foundation Doubling Act cleared the House this spring and was approved by Congress last Thursday. Its passage is now contingent upon Presidential endorsement.

“We believe the President expects to sign this bill,” said Stephen Johnson, director of government affairs. “What this bill does is to chart out funding over the next five years for the NSF and to suggest or authorize funding levels for its various programs.”

However, even with President Bush’s approval, the final funding increase is far from certain.

“We can’t put the money in the bank yet. It is an authorization bill, not an appropriation bill. The authorization committees define the strategic directions of the agencies but do not make the final funding decisions. It is really the case of one portion of the government making pledges for another,” Richardson said.

“Appropriators actually make the financial decisions, and we don’t know what would happen if, for example, we went to war with Iraq,” Johnson said.

Any increase in funding would be significant since the NSF’s funding actually declined with respect to inflation throughout the 1990s, Richardson said.

This proposed increase comes on the heals of increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “If everything goes as planned, this will be the last year that will double the NIH,” Johnson said.

Funding for the NIH increased 15.5 percent last year. The current measure would increase NSF funds by 15 percent each year over a five-year period that could begin as early as the 2004 fiscal year.

“I think this is in some way a recognition of the success of the NIH increase,” Martin said.

Other agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have experienced sustained yearly declines in funding relative to inflation. Bolstering the amount of funding available through the NSF could help cover the cost of research that has previously relied on financing from these other agencies, according to Johnson.

“Many people who were previously funded by the USDA are now seek funding from the NSF. There’s a well-known hierarchy of grant size,” Martin said.

Of the three agency grants, typically NIH grants are the largest and USDA grants are the smallest with the NSF falling somewhere in the middle.

Cornell received $360 million last year in external research funding from state and federal entities like the NSF, NIH, and USDA.

“Another good thing about this is that there has been generally broad support for science on both sides of the aisle with both Democrats and Republicans backing this,” Johnson said.

The measure was first proposed last year by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and it has received bi-partisan support in both houses of legislature.

“I’ve actually gone to members of Congress lobbying for this bill, so I’m very excited by its progress,” Richardson said. In addition to his position at Cornell, Richardson also serves on the National Science board, the governing body of the NSF.

“Overall, it sounds very promising that the NSF might increase its funding to the level of the NIH,” Martin said.

Archived article by Philip Lane