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FYI Number 78: June 28, 2002

Hearing by Senate Authorizers on National Science Foundation

At last week's hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, those senators present displayed considerable support for the National Science Foundation. Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and other senators, including two key appropriators, declared their strong support for NSF. At the same time, there was no mention of a schedule for the committee to work on a bill similar to House-passed H.R. 4664 that would put the foundation on a budget doubling track. Of interest was an exchange about the proposed RSVP particle physics project.

This hearing drew a very large audience, with some people sitting on the floor. Kennedy started by declaring that advances in one area of science often depend upon advances in other fields, citing the importance of physical sciences. Kennedy described his concerns about the future S&T workforce, the decline of student interest in science, and falling student science test scores.

NSF Director Rita Colwell's testimony centered on workforce issues. She described the mismatch between the skills of the general workforce and the requirements of new jobs, explaining that the U.S. was falling behind other nations. Colwell updated the committee on the status of the Math-Science Partnership program, with awards to be announced late this summer about the grants that will be made from the 290 proposals submitted.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a member of this committee, is also the chair of the Senate VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. "We're looking forward to working with our fellow authorizers on the right policy framework," she told the committee. Added appropriations subcommittee Ranking Minority Member Christopher Bond (R-MO), "we would like to see the authorization bill support this doubling," referring to the effort the two senators have made to increase the budget for the NSF. Bond declared that the nation's scientific capabilities are "at risk," citing the shortfall in funding for the physical sciences. He went on say that it was not enough to simply double the NIH budget; the NSF budget must be doubled as well.

Witness and former Senator John Glenn (D-MD) discussed workforce and science education issues, telling the committee that the "emergency is already here." Mikulski replied that "we would like to double the budget of the NSF," saying it had served the nation well to do that for the NIH. She then asked Colwell about what NSF would do with a larger budget, Colwell mentioning increased funding for education programs, nanotechnology, grant size, and increasing the number of grants awarded. Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) was also at the hearing, declaring it the most important hearing that will be held affecting the future of the nation. His questions centered on education.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) began by saying that "I support very strongly the increased money for NSF." She then pressed Colwell about the status of the proposed RSVP project. The Rare Symmetry Violating Processes particle physics project would be conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory using the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron.

Clinton explained that there was hope that the NSF would request funding for this project a year and one-half ago. When that did not materialize, the expectation was that it would be included in the FY 2003 request sent to Congress earlier this year. NSF did not include it in that request. RSVP has been approved by the National Science Board. Clinton referred to the "black hole of approved MRE [Major Research Equipment] projects," and told Colwell that $15 million in foreign contributions were on the verge of vanishing. NSF's inaction, Clinton charged, had set back the collaborative enterprise (New York University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, thirteen universities, and collaborators in Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Switzerland.) Clinton wants NSF to establish a prioritized list for projects, a provision contained in H.R. 4664.

In reply, Colwell said that RSVP is in a small set of projects approved by the National Science Board that are waiting for inclusion in future NSF budget requests (the FY 2003 NSF budget request explained that funding had also not been requested for the Ocean Observatories Initiative and Scientific Ocean Drilling.) It is a question of money, Colwell said, with priority given to funding ongoing MRE projects. After the funding of these projects, future new start requests will depend on the availability of additional money. Colwell added that no new start money had been requested in FY 2001 or FY 2002. Clinton asked if the authorization level for Major Research Equipment should be increased in an NSF bill the committee drafts. Colwell agreed, saying "scientists need tools."

Clinton then turned to the composition of the NSF budget, saying that it was heavily tilted to the life sciences. Should we address this in the authorization bill, she asked Colwell. "We do not have an imbalance in the NSF budget," Colwell replied, and cited some of the critical life sciences research the foundation is supporting. "Balance is very important we try to address that," Colwell concluded.

So what is the outlook on NSF legislation? The House has passed a robust NSF authorization bill that makes a strong statement about the value it attaches to the foundation. The outlook for a similar authorization bill coming from this Senate committee is less certain. The appropriators are marking up some of the thirteen appropriations bills, and some of them have already been passed. The current speculation is that the VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill will not be acted upon until later this year - perhaps as late as September.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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