NSF Hearing: Good News, Bad News
"I just wish our wallet could match our warmth"
The May 4 hearing for the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology Policy was the last hearing of this budget cycle for the Senate VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. Subcommittee chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) got the hearing off to a good start by saying that he was "very, very interested" in the NSF, calling it "critical to the success of basic scientific research." He described himself and Ranking Minority Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) as "strong supporters of the federal commitment to basic science."
This was a hearing about money, and there is both good news and bad news. Bond said that "there's nothing I would rather do" than to provide NSF's 17% requested increase, but then continued, "the reality is this will be a very difficult year." Bond was referring to what would turn out to be a low allocation for his subcommittee, which he said, puts the subcommittee in "an impossible situation." This subcommittee, and its House counterpart, now do not have the money they will need to cover programs as wide-ranging, and expensive, as veterans' medical care, housing for the poor, clean-up of the environment, space exploration, and basic scientific research.
In addition to this overarching worry, Bond has some specific concerns. "A flashing light," was how Bond described his concerns about whether NSF would be able to manage the rapid infusion of money if the request is granted. He told NSF officials to "count me skeptical" about multi agency research initiatives, and wanted background on how the 123% increase for the administration's nanotechnology initiative was determined. Bond then cited "compelling needs in existing fields of research," and, repeating his earlier comment, said that he would have to be convinced that NSF is currently doing a good job of managing multi agency projects before he would support the nanotechnology initiative. He ended his opening statement by expressing his displeasure with the agency's request for no funding for the Office of Innovative Partnerships and its flat funding request for EPSCoR. Mikulski, for her part, shared both Bond's "compassion for science," and his concerns about effective program coordination.
National Science Board Chairman Eamon M. Kelly delivered a forceful opening statement, saying "the Nation commits a fundamental error by underinvesting in fundamental research." "A 17% increase in NSF is an investment in the lifeblood of science, engineering, and technology. It should be a priority . . . in the whole Federal budget." Both Kelly, and NSF Director Rita Colwell, emphasized that almost one-half of this increase is targeted for "core support" to the disciplines NSF has traditionally supported. Colwell told the subcommittee that she "cannot overstate" the importance of NSF investment in basic research, and in new initiatives, such as nanotechnology.
OSTP Director Neal Lane touched on many of these same themes. He made it a point to declare "how dedicated this administration is to working with you," and added, "I very much appreciate your passion for science and technology."
Again, good news and bad news. Bond told the administration witnesses that he has been asked by Missouri researchers, in fields such as physics, "why aren't your putting more in NSF?" so that its budget growth would track that of NIH. "That is a good question," Bond said. Yet, he continued, "My enthusiasm [for NSF] might get two or three votes on the Senate floor." Bond told Colwell and Lane that we "need a vision . . . what are we selling?" Colwell admitted that often the link between disciplines is not well-understood, comparing progress between the physical and life sciences to parallel railroad tracks. "We really want to work with you to develop a plan" to build support for NSF, Bond told the witnesses. Lane added that the recent budget growth for NIH was "about right," but that "supporting sciences are being substantially underfunded . . . I agree with you that we do need to do a better job to get the message across." Mikulski was in agreement, calling this "the vision thing."
Other issues raised by Mikulski included facility and equipment funding for smaller universities and nanotechnology, in which she is "really interested." About nanotechnology and its potential, she said, "it feels like our little secret," and told Lane and Colwell, "we need visibility . . . we don't want the vision to be invisible."
Bond was very worried about the public's "hysteria and fear" about genetically modified organisms. He also wanted to know if NSF was funding enough risky, innovative proposals in information technology, and asked about the relationship of physics research supported by NSF to nuclear medicine.
The hearing ended when Mikulski and Bond went to a meeting with other Senate appropriators to, as Bond said, "fight for the [subcommittee's] allocation." That fight is still far from won, and will be key to getting NSF's 17% requested budget increase.
Richard M. Jones