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
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
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
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.