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FYI Number 24: February 22, 2002

Science Committee Questions Level, Balance of Federal Research Investment

"The Congress, led by this Committee, will have to show its mettle and provide an infusion of cash for the rest of the research budget, even in these straitened times." - Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

At a wide-ranging February 13 hearing on the President's FY 2003 budget request for R&D, House Science Committee members generally supported the budget's emphasis on anti-terrorism, homeland and economic security, and health research, but also indicated that they would try to find additional funds for science programs. As Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said, the budget priorities are "reasonable" and "self-evident" and "deserve to be funded more generously than are other programs." But he added that "the focusing of the proposed R&D budget on two narrowly defined priority areas [defense and health] has left the spending for other agencies anemic." He later commented that if it were not for defense and national security needs, "this committee collectively would be madder than hell, to put it bluntly," at the funding levels for some parts of the science enterprise.

Noting that the requested $3.9 billion increase in the NIH budget is larger than the entire research budget of NSF, Boehlert raised concerns about balance in the federal research portfolio that were echoed by other committee members. He also called proposals to transfer programs from NOAA, USGS, and EPA into NSF "well meaning, but largely wrong-headed." Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) agreed with Boehlert's remarks and added that without these transfers, NSF would see "only a small increase," with cuts to physics and chemistry research.

"The priorities of the nation drastically changed in a matter of a few hours" after September 11, OSTP Director John Marburger testified. While the budget reflects three primary goals - the war on terrorism, homeland security, and reviving the economy - he pointed out that R&D is up eight percent, with increases for a number of research areas: nanotechnology, information technology, health, and climate change. He added that this budget will fulfill President Bush's campaign promise to double the NIH budget by FY 2003.

Witnesses for the Department of Commerce, NSF, and DOE discussed their budget requests. Deputy Commerce Secretary Samuel Bodman stated that while NIST labs would receive increased funding, substantial reductions are proposed for the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He and Commerce Secretary Don Evans "spent considerable time" reviewing ATP and he believed that, if their recommendations were followed, it could be a successful program that they would "enthusiastically support." According to NSF Director Rita Colwell, highlights of the NSF request include Math and Science Partnerships to improve K-12 education and an increase in graduate student stipends; other priority areas include nano- and information technologies, math and statistics, the Science of Learning Centers, an initiative on technology and society, and environmental biocomplexity. She acknowledged that the request includes $76 million in transfers from other agencies. DOE Chief Financial Officer Bruce Carnes broadly described DOE's R&D programs, stating that the budget reflects efforts to refocus DOE priorities to the Department's new primary mission of national security. He spent little time on Office of Science programs except to note that priorities included support of science user facilities and infrastructure improvements.

The topic drawing most Members' attention was balance in the federal R&D investment. While none opposed the level of funding for NIH, Reps. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), Bob Etheridge (D-NC) and others argued that without sufficient funding of areas like physics and chemistry, the tools and background knowledge to advance the health sciences would not be developed. Boehlert commented that while the NIH budget represents about half of the total federal S&T budget, he was not convinced that NIH had "a monopoly on important science opportunities." Ehlers asked Marburger whether the completion of the commitment to double NIH funding meant that additional money might then be available for other areas of science. Although saying that "hopefully" the end of the NIH doubling effort "will remove some constraints on the ability to fund other priority areas...in the future," Marburger said there had to be "some basis for distributing money" across the science enterprise. He stressed that the Administration was looking for reasons for "singling out one area or another" for investment and, if that basis were complexity, increases for NIH would be justified. The ability to unravel the structure of DNA, he said, is going to provide an "extraordinary, enormous, huge" opportunity to understand the molecular basis of life. Ehlers responded that, if the measure were complexity, astrophysics should be getting the most funding, and urged Marburger to consider such decisions thoughtfully.

Ehlers and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) also questioned the cuts to NIST's ATP and MEP programs. Bodman said the proposed modifications to ATP would eliminate "inappropriate corporate subsidies" by enabling universities and small companies to receive more ATP funding. Regarding MEP, he believed the Administration had raised "a fair question" for how long federal funding for the centers should continue, but "whether it is reasonable to expect these centers to exist without federal support, I don't have a quick answer."

There was also much discussion of new research and technology initiatives in climate change; Marburger said these new programs were focused on areas that bear directly on climate change policy decisions. A number of committee members felt that federal climate change research has discriminated against scientists with unpopular viewpoints, but Marburger explained that most of the research expenditures were awarded in open competition and determined by the aspects of climate change needing investigated, rather than on the scientist's point of view.

Other areas of questioning included the investment in aerospace technology, nuclear fuel reprocessing, inter-agency coordination, the President's Management Agenda, and science education. Now that he has been in office for a few months, Marburger said, he feels that the mechanism to coordinate research across the agencies and eliminate duplication "works better than I might have expected." Noting that OMB was intending to develop performance measures for basic research, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) asked whether the agencies had sufficient expertise to assess the basic research portfolio. Marburger replied that he was working on the issue, with input from all the R&D agencies and from numerous reports, including a "significant" study put out several years ago by the National Academy of Sciences. Questioned by Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) about science education, Colwell responded that NSF was looking at its education programs to "find what works," and then applying that to the Math and Science Partnerships, "which I'm very excited about."

Gutknecht praised the witnesses for "the work all of you do," and, noting that it would be a difficult budget year, said the committee would "probably do...nip and tucking as we go along" to see if it could "improve the plight of some of these programs."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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