Take Notice --
Senate Appropriations Committee Report Language on NSF
But, as is true with many things, sometimes the fine print reveals more than first met the eye. This is the case with the report language accompanying the bill. While not the end of the world, this development should be viewed with great concern.
Every bill sent to the House or Senate floor has a committee report accompanying it. The report generally describes the bill's objectives, provides some background, dollar figures, and recommendations on implementation. The report is not the same as the bill, and is not legally binding. But people generally do what their boss tells them to do -- even if it is not an order. In this case, the Senate Appropriations Committee is telling NSF what to do, even if it is not legally ordering it do so (which is the purpose of an authorization, not an appropriations, bill.)
Up until this time, Congress has pretty much left NSF alone when it came to telling it how to spend its money. NSF has been able to distribute its funds free of earmarking through a system of competitive, merit-based, peer review. There was usually some general report language, and sometimes, as in the case of Senator Barbara Mikulski's 1993 language telling NSF to fund more "strategic research," it caused discussion. The new Senate report language below should cause the scientific community to do more than have discussions:
ITEM 1: The report states: "...the Committee remains concerned over the National Science Foundation's failure to provide a budget justification for fiscal year 1999 that meets the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act [GPRA]. It is important that all initiatives and programs of NSF be identified with specific funding as well as quantifiable goals and milestones. The Committee expects NSF's fiscal year 2000 budget to establish quantifiable goals and milestones, and absent compliance, the Committee may have to consider appropriating program specific funding."
Those last ten words are important. Given the difficulty of establishing "quantifiable goals and milestones" for basic research, one has to ask if the committee is opening up the door to "appropriating specific funding" that will override NSF's internal and external funding system.
ITEM 2: Congress has always had concerns about the distribution of federal research money to "the old boys' network." EPSCoR's mission is more evenly distribute this money. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking this much further: "The Committee, therefore, urges the agency [NSF], as part of its KDI [Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence] initiative, to support proposals addressing the demonstrated personnel needs of information technology firms for expanded education and training at three university-based centers. The Committee directs the agency to focus its support on universities and colleges that do not normally fall within the top 100 of NSF's survey of universities and colleges receiving Federal research support to overcome any bias toward more established institutions. The Committee has provided $6,000,000 to support this initiative."
There is more in a later section of the report:
"The Committee, therefore, directs NSF to develop a new research program for the establishment of three multi-investigator centers in the area of applied molecular biology. The development of such centers shall be targeted to universities and colleges that do not normally fall within the top 100 of NSF's survey of universities and colleges receiving Federal research support to overcome bias toward more established institutions. The centers should facilitate the preparation of a new generation of trained scientists at younger institutions. Further, the institutions must demonstrate evidence of interdisciplinary efforts in the molecular biosciences and have a history of laboratory-based training of researchers for the biotechnology industry. The Committee is providing $12,000,000 to support this initiative."
ITEM 3: There are at least two instances of geographically-specific report language, the first on the Next Generation Internet Program:
"The Committee is well aware that some States, such as Hawaii and Alaska, face unique challenges in getting access to high-performance telecommunication networks and urges NSF to continue to work closely with universities from these States and with other Federal agencies, to address this access problem. The Committee strongly encourages NSF and the other relevant agencies involved in high-speed networking to provide appropriate support that will assist these and other States and their institutions of higher education to gain access to the developing national research network test bed."
Another instance concerns a LTER, a Long Term Ecological Research Center:
"The Committee directs NSF to support through a competitive process an additional LTER site, for the study of a pristine, inland, mountain wilderness areas. Preferences should be given to sites with established research facilities operated by an accredited university or nonprofit organization."
THE BOTTOM LINE: This report language should be of great concern to the scientific community. It opens the door to the House Appropriations Committee to do the same thing this year. A House appropriations subcommittee just completed work on its own version of this bill yesterday. More ominously, the Senate language sets a precedent for even greater restrictions on how NSF can distribute research funding in coming years.
Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
[an error occurred while processing this directive]