Science agencies get fresh paymasters in Republican revamp

NSF and NASA get new funding bosses in US Congress.

Washington

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will answer to a new set of masters in Congress, following a wide-ranging shake-up of the committees that set their budgets.

In changes pushed through by the Republican leadership in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the appropriations subcommittees that dealt with the two science agencies — as well as a range of other programmes, from housing to veterans' affairs — have been abolished.

NASA and the NSF will now be overseen by new subcommittees, where they will compete for funds with the Department of Commerce, the criminal-justice system and the state department.

It isn't yet clear what the change will mean for the agencies' budgets. But it poses a challenge to agency chiefs, who now have to explain what they do to a new set of people in Congress, beginning at hearings this week. “Change is good,” says Arden Bement, director of the NSF, adding caustically that “sometimes, no change would be even better”.

The House and Senate subcommittees are now chaired by, respectively, Frank Wolf (Republican, Virginia) and Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama). Shelby crossed swords with scientific leaders in 1999 when he championed a bill to open up scientists' data for scrutiny by industry groups (see Nature 397, 459; 1999 10.1038/17163).

But many of the new committees' members have had scant dealings with science agencies in the past. “We have a whole new group of people who need to be educated about the importance of the NSF and NASA,” says Tobin Smith of the congressional affairs office at the Washington-based Association of American Universities.

Each year, the subcommittees take the president's budget request and convert it into the final budgets received by agencies and government departments. The process is heavily dependent on the personalities involved, and the NSF, in particular, has benefited in recent years from allies on the old subcommittees who sometimes gave it more money than the White House requested.

Both Shelby and Barbara Mikulski (Democrat, Maryland), the top Democrat on the Senate committee, have major NASA facilities in their states, which should ensure strong support for the space agency, some lobbyists note.

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http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/17163

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Brumfiel, G. Science agencies get fresh paymasters in Republican revamp. Nature 434, 129 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434129b

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