Government Relations Update

National Science Foundation: New director, new directions, new challenges

Opportunities for psychology are encouraging but budget remains uncertain.

By Heather O'Beirne Kelly

A great deal has been happening recently at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and much of it has an impact on funding for psychology and other behavioral and social sciences.  Here’s a brief overview:

New Director Expresses Support for Behavioral and Social Sciences

Following confirmation by the Senate, Subra Suresh assumed office as the new director of NSF in October of 2010.  Trained as a mechanical engineer, Suresh most recently served as Dean of the Engineering School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research focused on materials science and nanobiomechanics.  In his role as NSF director, Suresh oversees the nation’s only federal agency dedicated to sponsoring basic research in all of the sciences, including the behavioral and social sciences.

Suresh has spent his first several months on the job talking extensively with NSF communities and constituencies, in order to understand existing NSF initiatives and map out a plan for moving forward.  In a January 2011 speech to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group of high-level academic and industry leaders, Suresh identified “four key interconnected topics” for increased focus at NSF: 

  1. basic research as fuel for market-viable innovation; 

  2. the STEM pipeline; 

  3. the nation's international STEM leadership; and 

  4. interdisciplinary opportunities for discovery.” 

Of particular relevance for the behavioral and social sciences, given the now annual congressional attacks on federal grants in these areas of research, was Suresh’s statement that “NSF's mission mandates attention to the entire spectrum of science. Emphasizing some sciences at the expense of others can handicap discovery and compromise innovation.”  In response to specific questions from PCAST members about the behavioral and social sciences, Suresh reiterated his strong support for their value in addressing fundamental scientific questions and national challenges.

Investment in Interdisciplinary Research on Sustainability

Suresh’s emphasis on funding interdisciplinary research to address national (and global) challenges is evident in the Fiscal Year 2012 NSF budget proposal released by President Obama in February.  NSF plans to invest heavily in a cross-cutting portfolio of research first established in Fiscal Year 2010 (and expected to run through Fiscal Year 2015) called “Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability,” or SEES. The effort is designed to focus broadly on “sustainability, including priorities in fundamental climate and energy science research,” with the goal of improving society’s ability to understand, predict and respond to changes in the “linked natural, social, and built environment.”  NSF is encouraging scientists from all disciplines to address complex issues related to sustainability, including human psychological dimensions such as decision-making, vulnerability and resilience, learning and behavior change.  More information about this initiative can be found on the NSF SEES website. 

Next Generation Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences

The NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) also has been explicitly engaging scientific communities to think about innovative and “transformative” research.  In August 2010, SBE released a Dear Colleague letter inviting individuals and groups to develop white papers outlining “grand challenge questions” to guide SBE science over the next 10-20 years and research strategies to address those questions.  More than 250 white papers were received, and SBE staff plan to use these to “inform the substance of future research, the capacities to pursue that research, and the infrastructure to enable investigations that will be increasingly interdisciplinary and international and will involve multiple perspectives and intellectual frameworks, differing scales and contexts, and diverse approaches and methodologies.”  The white papers are now available online (in both abstract and full text format) on the NSF SBE website.

NSF’s Funding Environment

To a large extent, how these and other proposed NSF investments proceed will depend on the federal budget environment.  As this article is published, NSF and other federal agencies are operating under a stop-gap funding bill at last year’s budget levels while awaiting a final Fiscal Year 2011 (the current year) appropriations bill and while beginning to see what Congress plans to do with the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposed budget.  These budget deliberations are taking place against the backdrop of NSF funding guidelines authorized in the recently-passed America COMPETES Act, which was endorsed by the American Psychological Association (APA) and other scientific organizations.  (The Act calls for a nearly 20% increase in the NSF budget over three years.)  It is a confusing picture at best and predictions are difficult to make, since Congress is grappling with pressure to cut programs across the federal government (including scientific research) and the President is determined to increase support for fundamental research even in a challenging budget environment.  APA will continue to advocate strongly for NSF appropriations that meet the guidelines of the America COMPETES Act.

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Heather O’Beirne Kelly, PhD, is Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer in the APA Science Government Relations Office.  She advocates for psychological research at the National Science Foundation.