Important Budget Hearing for National Science Foundation Officials of the National Science Foundation had the opportunity to appear before the money people this week to discuss their FY 2001 budget request. In an ornate but cramped hearing room in the Capitol, NSF Director Rita Colwell and her senior staff responded to almost three and one-half hours of questions about the foundation's 17.3% requested budget increase for FY 2001. Colwell had a good hearing; the extent to which this translates into good numbers will not be known until perhaps next month.
Subcommittee chairman James Walsh (R-NY) and his Republican and Democratic colleagues on the House VA, HUD appropriations subcommittee were, almost without exception, very favorably inclined toward NSF. Walsh began the hearing by describing the request as "very robust," and then told Colwell that his subcommittee's allocation may not be sufficient to fully fund the increase. Walsh was describing his yet unknown 302b allocation the amount of money that the subcommittee will have to fund all of the programs under its jurisdiction. That number is still being developed, depending in large part on the budget resolution the House and Senate settle on. While the House recently voted to increase the amount of money the government would spend on General Science and Technology by a billion dollars over the current year, it still falls considerably short of what would be needed to fully fund the Clinton Administration's FY 2001 S&T request. None of this is yet firm, but Walsh's point was a good, and telling one.
National Science Board Chairman Eamon Kelly, in his written and oral testimony, directly addressed the level of federal R&D funding. He said the "minuscule proportion of the total Federal budget devoted to research indicates a mismatch between our interpretation of the past and our commitment to the future." He strongly supported the administration's request for NSF, and said that it was "overdue - and needed - but just a start." In her oral testimony, Colwell described the importance of NSF's support to 200,000 individuals every year, and briefly reviewed proposed new starts in the FY 2001 request.
It was the funding for these four initiatives, and other foundation priorities, that Walsh and some of his colleagues questioned a number of times. He told Colwell that his questions should not be viewed as criticism, but as information gathering. Walsh wanted to know how NSF determines its priorities and initiatives. In response to a question from him, Colwell said, "with total candor," that the Office of Management and Budget never pushes a priority on NSF. It is, she said, "about as democratic a process as one can wish." Walsh asked what was being phased-out to pay for the initiatives. Colwell used his question to explain that NSF works on the cutting-edge, and that it is natural to phase out money for some research. Chairman Walsh, however, did not seem entirely convinced, saying that subcommittee members had been told by some researchers about "areas of base funding that may be sacrificed" to enable other spending. He cited, as an example, NSF funding for a major Cornell physics facility. "What do I tell them?" Walsh asked. Colwell replied that researchers should "reach out" to cross- disciplinary programs, for which money has increased.
Ranking Minority Member Allan Mollohan (D-WVA) wanted to know about NSF's future funding plans. Colwell told him that the foundation's budget was to at least double over five years. He asked if this was on paper, and was told that it was, asked for a copy of the plan. Colwell also described the coming use of new technologies that she and her senior staff said would mean a new way of managing the agency in areas such as proposal review.
In response to other questions, Colwell described the decline there has been in funding for physics, chemistry, and engineering, cautioning that fundamental research in these areas leads to new technologies. Other members wanted to know about foundation support of minority institutions, the technology transfer that occurs when people change jobs, the involvement of scientists in local school systems, the distribution of NSF grants, EPSCoR, technical training programs in community colleges, the distribution of money to museums, foundation programs to examine what seems to be the "coarsening of society," and systemic educational reform. New subcommittee member Virgil Goode (now Independent, but sitting with the Republicans - VA) asked a series of detailed questions about the foundation's Research and Related Activities program. He wanted to know how many requests the NSF receives and how many it funds, if any of its proposal reviewers are paid (they are not), and how many of the reviewers are from private industry. He asked Colwell for a list of the top 2,000 institutions receiving NSF funding.
The hearing adjourned without concluding remarks from Walsh or his colleagues on the outlook for the overall foundation request. At one point, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said that NSF and NIH are the "favorite institutions in the Congress," and this hearing demonstrated the high regard which members hold for the foundation. It is still too early to predict how this will all turn out.
Richard M. Jones