12 March 2024

NSF Cuts in FY24 Appropriations

Congress decided to ignore its own plan for NSF in the CHIPS and Science Act. Rather than restore funding for NSF, Congress has gutted it. Funding for NSF in FY24 will drop by 8% to about $9 billion, a decrease of $814 million from the full appropriations of $9.8 billion in FY23. 

The cuts are in two main accounts:

  • Research and Related Activities (R&RA), funded at $7.2 billion, an 8% decrease from $7.8 billion in FY23,
  • STEM Education, funded at $1.2 billion, a 20% decrease from $1.5 billion in FY23.

The Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) budget line increased to $234 million, 25% increase from $187 million in FY23. 

Astronomy and solar physics had special language in the bill. We are glad to see acknowledgment of the astronomical decadal surveys.  During these tough federal budget times, we advocate that Congress and federal agencies make the investments needed to implement decadal recommendations. Now is the time to fight for NSF

The Future of Astronomy Facilities 

The bill continues to have strong language supporting astronomical facilities. The bill adopts previous Senate language that provides not less than $30 million for NSF to support the development of next generation astronomy facilities recommended in Astro2020. This exact language was included in the FY23 appropriations and at that time it was very unclear where the $30 million for astronomy went. Since then, NSF has said that $6.5 million each went to TMT and GMT projects and $2.3 million to NOIRLab -- about $15.3 million to help US ELT design and development.  The remainder was, “Put towards continued development of other major facilities prioritized in Astro2020, including CMB-S4, ngVLA, and initial next-gen Gravitational Wave definition.” There is still an immediate need for additional funds for astronomy facilities design and development.  

Just a few weeks ago, on 22 February 2024, the NSF’s National Science Board (NSB) passed two resolutions supporting the construction of the US ELTs. However, there is a cap on construction costs for the project through the MREFC account at $1.6 billion.  Ironically, the FY24 appropriations bill was a few weeks late in directing NSF to present the US ELT Program to the NSB. Although, the bill does, “Strongly encourages the NSB to ensure that the US ELT Program includes a two-observatory footprint with a mechanism to guarantee robust community access.” 

The NSB resolution states that the $1.6 billion cap for the US ELTs is based on the estimated construction costs presented in the Astro2020 decadal, but these estimates are now 3-4 years old. NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate completed Blue Ribbon Panel in the summer of 2023 and the report supported AST plan for moving US ELTs projects forward. It is not clear whether the Blue Ribbon Panel had the opportunity to review current cost estimates.  Also, it seems the NSB did not receive access to the Blue Ribbon Panel report before voting on their resolution.   

The NSB resolution also states that it expects NSF to, “Discuss with the Board during the May 2024 meeting its plan to select which of the two candidate telescopes the Agency plans to continue to support, including estimated costs and a timeline for the project.” At this time, we are uncertain how the NSF will develop this required plan and who will be involved in creating the plan. The AAS is resolved to advocate for the recommendations in the Astro2020 decadal survey and will continue to support the US ELT project.  

Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) shall receive no less than the requested level for operations, about $20 million in FY24. Green Bank Observatory (GBO) will have up to the FY23 enacted level, about $11 million, to support operations and maintenance at GBO through multi-agency plans, or directly through NSF. The bill supports Arecibo Observatory, but it is unclear how NSF will, “retain the scientific mission of the Arecibo Observatory facility.” 

Astro2020 recommended ramping up the Mid-scale Innovations Program (MSIP) and Mid-scale Research Infrastructure Track 1 (Mid-scale RI-1) to $50 million per year. Appropriations bills do not normally have directed language to support MSIP. However, the bill includes support for Mid-scale RI-1, yet stops short of appropriating a specific amount of funds.  In 2023, NSF put out a call for Mid-scale RI-1 grants and since that call they have funded only five in 2023 and 2024 totaling about $78 million, none of these awards went to astronomy mid-scale projects. There has not been a call for MSIP since 2019. 

What About AST Grants? 

The cut of 8% in the R&RA account will trickle down to the Directorates and Divisions.  The Astronomy (AST) Division sits in the MPS Directorate. According to NSF, its current spending plan gave MPS $1,686 million in FY23.  If MPS gets an 8% cut in FY24, then that will put funding back to less than FY21 funding levels. A decrease in the AST Division budget would put a squeeze on grants since over 70% of the AST goes toward operations of current facilities. However, the cuts could be taken from elsewhere in MPS.  For example, the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI) has helped other Divisions during funding shortfalls. 

Meanwhile, there seems to be some acknowledgement for NSF to develop a sustainable plan for supporting the design and development, construction, and operations and maintenance costs of its large facilities, while preserving an appropriate balance with funding foundational grants programs. The bill language states that Congress, “Expects NSF to provide appropriate levels of support for operating its current facilities, developing instrumentation, and preparing for investments in future world-class scientific research facilities... NSF is also expected to support a balanced portfolio of astronomy research grants by scientists and students engaged in ground-breaking research.”   

Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction 

In FY24, NSF will have $234 million to fund four construction projects and the Mid-scale Research Infrastructure Track 2 program. Mid-scale RI-2 is directed to have $95 million, leaving the remaining $139 million of the MREFC funds to go to the four projects. 

Vera C. Rubin Observatory and the High Luminosity-Large Hadron Collider Upgrade will move out of the MREFC account in FY24 and into operations. Therefore, it is likely that each project would receive their final tranche of requested FY24 funding, $7.61 and $38 million, respectively. The Antarctic Infrastructure Recapitalization project started in FY19 and is ongoing, which requests funding of $60 million in FY24. FY24 is the first year the Leadership Class Computing Facility (LCCF) is scheduled to be in the MREFC account.  

The Mid-scale RI-2 program has given $217 million to eight awards since its inception in 2020.  Only one award has been given to an astronomy related project at $14 million.