Jeffords Prepares for Senate NSF Reauthorization "Over the course of the next month, I plan to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to craft a bipartisan reauthorization bill that reflects our Nation's needs for basic research and math and science education." - Senator James Jeffords
On July 12, Senator James Jeffords (R-Vermont) heard from seven witnesses in an NSF reauthorization hearing that addressed many aspects of the foundation's activities. Jeffords' Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has primary jurisdiction over the foundation, and as the senator noted above, intends to develop a reauthorization bill before Congress leaves for its August recess (currently scheduled for July 31 to September 4).
While the main topics of discussion at the hearing were Jeffords' abiding interests of education and EPSCoR, he also repeatedly raised concerns about the balance of federal funding for basic research across the full spectrum of disciplines. "The importance of this [federal] investment in basic research cannot be exaggerated," he stated. Other than for brief appearances by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Patty Murray (D- Washington), who also focused mainly on NSF's education programs, Jeffords was alone on the dias.
NSF Director Rita Colwell defended her foundation's bold request for a 17.3 percent increase for FY 2001 by declaring that it would enable "a level of investment that is clearly in keeping with the wealth of opportunity that science and engineering provide society." She noted that while much of the requested growth would fund major multidisciplinary initiatives in Information Technology, Biocomplexity, Nanotechnology, and a 21st Century Workforce, nearly half of the $675 million increase would go toward strengthening NSF's core research disciplines. Colwell believes the level of funding for NSF's mission of basic research, currently at $3.9 billion for FY 2000, should be more comparable to that of the science "mission" agencies such as NIH, DOE, and NASA, all with budgets of well over $10 billion.
Jeffords indicated that while he and his committee colleagues generally supported the increased funding for NSF, he thought it would be difficult to achieve in this budget environment. He asked Colwell what opportunities would be lost if the requested funding level was not met. "In a word, it could be viewed as tragic," she responded, citing the potential for advances in understanding complex biological, planetary and weather systems based on progress in computing capability that would be financed through the requested increase. "I do believe sincerely," Jeffords commented, "that if we don't increase funding for the basics, we're not going to maximize the potential" of the other agencies that benefit from the fundamental research supported by NSF. He later mused over whether large increases to the mission agencies - particularly NIH - would start to be wasted unless support was increased for underlying fundamental discoveries.
Subsequent panels of witnesses were unanimous in their praise of the foundation's mission and its achievements. They testified to the value of NSF's activities in promoting K-12 science education reform, strengthening the nation's system of higher education in science, developing research capacity in many regions of the country through EPSCoR, investing in creative and innovative R&D, and maintaining the strength of all scientific disciplines. Denis Bartels, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at San Francisco's Exploratorium, likened NSF's role to that of a venture capitalist: "it is smart, sophisticated, strategic [and] investing in the right things." Daniel Goroff of Harvard, Director of the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, pointed to the "strong bipartisan consensus that money is well spent at NSF," and added that "every penny invested in NSF broadly is good for mathematics." MIT President Charles Vest, praised by Sen. Kennedy as instrumental over the years in "awakening the country to the importance of research," called NSF "the bedrock of America's future and current S&T capabilities." Vest vociferously urged "Congress to fully fund NSF's fiscal year 2001 budget request as the first step in a rapid doubling of its research and education programs."
Doug Harris, Executive Director of the Vermont Institute for Science, Math and Technology, described the importance of NSF's programs to science education in Vermont, and Joe Danek, Director of the EPSCoR Foundation, spoke of the EPSCoR program's effectiveness in helping states build research capacity. Jeffords questioned why EPSCoR and the entire Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate were not slated for large increases as were the foundation's research activities (EHR would receive a 5.5 percent increase while EPSCoR would decline slightly). Colwell and other panelists explained that money and efforts would be committed to the education and EPSCoR programs from within the research directorates as well as EHR, resulting in greater funding than what appeared in the specific accounts.
Because education and EPSCoR are personal favorites of Jeffords, he might seek to enlarge their FY 2001 funding when drafting his authorization bill. Once the bill is marked up by the HELP committee, it must be referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. There are currently efforts underway in the House Science Committee as well to mark up an NSF authorization bill. How far these efforts get before the August recess, and whether Congress will have time to return to NSF reauthorization in the fall, with the crunch of the appropriations bills and the upcoming election, remains to be seen. Authorization bills are supposed to provide guidance to appropriators, and there is a chance that Jeffords' bill might have an influence on NSF appropriations. While House appropriators have already passed their FY 2001 bill for the foundation, the Senate VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee is delaying drafting its bill until after Congress returns from recess in September, in the hope that a way will be found to free up more money for programs under its jurisdiction.
Audrey T. Leath