Last week's hearing by the House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies
Appropriations Subcommittee on the National Science Foundation budget
request could not have gone any better. Both Republican and Democratic
members of the subcommittee were critical of the Bush Administration's
1.3% requested increase in the foundation's budget for FY 2002, and
said that they would do better.
Subcommittee chairman James Walsh (R-NY) did not mince words in describing
the administration's request. "Wholly inadequate" was how he described
the request for Research and Related Activities, saying that it sent
exactly the wrong message to the research community. Walsh also criticized
the Major Research Equipment request. He spoke of previous bipartisan
efforts that understood and recognized the vital role that research
has had in ensuring our nation's economic prosperity. Walsh informed
NSF Director Rita Colwell that he had taken steps to secure a higher
allocation for his subcommittee so as to provide more money for research,
calling it an "absolute priority." He told Colwell that he was "cautiously
optimistic we will be successful." There was, the chairman said, "a
lot of consternation on this subcommittee" about the request for NSF.
Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) shared Walsh's sentiments,
calling the request a "missed opportunity."
As a member of the administration, Colwell's responsibility was to
defend the request. She explained that the foundation's investment in
people was up 13%, and said she was "very proud" of NSF's role in the
administration's math and science partnership initiative. One of the
most important actions the agency could take in the next budget year,
she said, was raising stipends, which would boost the number of science
and engineering students.
Walsh spoke about re-balancing the R&D budget, citing the requested
13.5% increase for NIH. He wondered if the foundation's biological sciences
program budget should be reduced to provide more money for engineering
and physical sciences. Colwell replied that the request "reflects a
balance," and she would not favor such a redistribution. Walsh was also
concerned about the budgetary impacts of new program initiatives on
core activities. He pressed Colwell about the Major Research Equipment
request, and wanted to know why money was not requested for an atmospheric
research aircraft, as well as the foundation's approach toward developing
the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.
Next to question Colwell was Mollohan, who reminded her that "this
committee makes independent decisions about the budget." He said it
was "hard to understand" the administration's rationale, citing former
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's statement that the NSF request was a "tragic
mistake." To this, National Science Board Chairman Eamon Kelly said
that "We are eating our seed corn," and later recommended a doubling
of a better balanced research budget. Mollohan had many questions about
nanotechnology. When he asked Kelly what the "biggest opportunities"
were for NSF should it get more money, Kelly spoke about S&T workforce
issues, science education, the size and duration of grants, and the
size of various stipends.
Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked the next set of questions, saying
that it was going to be difficult to find a program to take the money
from to augment the NSF request. He urged the foundation to be more
vigorous in explaining its mission, stating that the public does not
see the long-term payoff in research. "In reality, a lot of the general
public doesn't know what the heck you do," Frelinghuysen told Colwell.
At that point, Rep. David Obey (D-WI) came into the hearing room.
Obey is the highest ranking Democrat on the full committee, and it was
his first appearance at an NSF hearing in more than ten years. He called
the Administration's request a "sad sack" budget, and a "profound warping"
of the federal research portfolio, "which demonstrates a fundamental
misunderstanding of how science works." Obey said that it was not necessary
to reduce NIH's request, instead criticizing the administration's tax
cut plan. Telling Colwell that he realized this request was not of her
making, Obey told her that she should not spend much time defending
it, because "this request is a dead dog." To which Walsh added, "I don't
think there is a lot of disagreement here."
Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) asked about the flat funding of community college
programs in the budget. Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI) called Obey's tax
cut remark "off the page," and wanted to know how NSF determines the
impact of its programs. He asked about any duplication of effort with
Department of Education programs, and also about coordination of nanotechnology
programs. Carrie Meek (D-FL) criticized the NSF request for minority
programs, saying that she was "not satisfied with NSF." Seeming to demonstrate
more uncertainty about NSF was Virgil Goode (Independent-VA), who asked
how NSF was using its H-1B funds, and wanted assurances that all foundation
scholarship money is restricted (as it is) to U.S. citizens.
Also exhibiting skepticism was Anne Northup (R-KY), a former calculus
teacher, who criticized federal involvement in education. David Price
(D-NC), in contrast, praised an NSF program which brings graduate students
into K-12 classrooms. Price was concerned about the reduction in support
for physical science core programs. Chaka Fattah's (D-PA) questions
revolved around minority programs. In his final round of questions,
Walsh asked about the K-12 math/science partnership program, and whether
cuts had to be made elsewhere to finance it. Mollohan expressed some
concern about the funding of core science programs. "We are doing all
we can to protect core areas," Colwell assured him. Frelinghuysen's
final questions centered on fusion, and NSF's cooperative programs with
the Department of Energy.
"We look forward to making some changes," Chairman Walsh said at the
conclusion of this two and one-half hour hearing. Those changes will
become apparent one month from tomorrow, when Walsh and his colleagues
meet on June 26 to mark up the FY 2002 VA, HUD, Independent Agencies
Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics